Some people practice yoga for exercise. Some for calming the mind and body. Others practice it for relaxation. I practice it for balance.
For me, yoga represents a challenge: I find it demanding, both physically and emotionally. Whilst it may coincidentally assist me to relax, and reduce tension and stress, my yoga practice is, like so many other things, a process and the benefits are not always immediately apparent.
I tend to practice within a group, by attending classes. I find this helpful. Not only does a studio boast the space I need, but it ensures the absence of any peripheral distractions. What no environment can exclude is the distractions I bring with me onto my mat - my own mental proliferation, which traditional Buddhist thought might class as the primary cause of suffering.
Whilst sitting or standing on my yoga mat, I try to bring my whole self into alignment: mind, body and spirit. This is a crucial prerequisite for the balance I aspire to.
From a physical health perspective, yoga improves balance, muscle tone, and seems to help fight fatigue. I know that after an hour's practice, I feel more fully awake, despite having asked a lot of my body, and my mind. It shifts my energy and, if I let it, generally lifts it.
Because of the focus in yoga on strengthening, gently twisting, and lengthening the spine and small muscles that surround it, yoga has been shown to have a therapeutic effect on many types of backaches and pain. I tend to spend a lot of time sitting down, both in the therapy room, and elsewhere. Yoga has become an important part of my week, precisely because of the way it helps my back, giving it an important breather.
Yoga is great for lengthening and strengthening, which is why I am often surrounded by enthusiastic runners, who, like me (cyclist, rather than runner), have tight hamstrings. Yoga is kind to my muscles and joints, and promotes flexibility - physical and psychological. Whilst stretching my muscles, I feel my mind also opens, and I can think with greater depth and breadth, resulting in improved clarity.
In my practice I try to be graceful. I focus on the poses, seeking to never compromise my breath. I seek to move from one posture to the next mindfully.
In this way, yoga seems to sharpens and focuses my mind. Retaining a focus on the breath, and on my body, I enjoy the fact that whilst I am practising in company, there is no room for idle chatter. The poses are organised into sequences, each of which tests my muscle memory, and keeps me alert to what is happening in my body. Unlike other forms of exercise, yoga practice is varied, and no two classes are ever the same.
I am never the same person. Whilst I may wear the same clothes, my mind and body are always in a different place to where they were before. Bringing my focus towards my body, and my breath, I can see how they work together, and enjoy the effects of this powerful internal collaboration.
By engaging my mind in this disciplined fashion several times a week, I enhance my concentration. By asking my body to work through a yoga practice, I increase my coordination. Together, I find I have improved balance.
A flexible, strong and active mind is just as important as a flexible, strong and active body.
Breathing is central to yoga. Yoga teaches us to breathe with our mouths closed, to gain the full benefits of the practice. As breathing slows, and inhalations and exhalations become fuller and longer, the mind becomes calmer and more peaceful.
Yoga can instill within me a deep sense of well-being. The inward focus teaches the mind to let go of stress and negative thoughts. Areas in the body that may be misaligned or holding tension are identified and the tension can be released.
The challenges involved in practicing and studying yoga are many. The sheer number of yoga postures, with infinite variations, keeps the body stimulated and the mind engaged. There is a complex system of philosophy and writings behind the practice detailing why the breathing and postures are done, and discussing the benefits of meditation as well. Yoga philosophy includes a system of ethics, including non-harming, non-stealing, non-hoarding, truthfulness, steadfastness, and self-inquiry.
The postures, breathing, and philosophy of yoga can all lead to contemplation. The ability of yoga to relax body and mind, leading to a reduction of tension and stress is arguably, its most important benefit. Yoga allows us to become still. During a yoga class, frequent pauses are taken so that we can really notice how we are feeling; the effects the breathing and postures are having on our bodies, and what our thoughts are.
If I were to ask other regular attenders why they come, I guess most of them would say that they come, and continue to come, because it makes them feel better. Practicing the postures, breathing exercises and meditation really does make you healthier in body, mind and spirit. Yoga lets you tune in, chill out, shape up - all at the same time!
There are plenty of good reasons to practice yoga. Here are just a few...
Yoga is good for what ails you.
What's more, yoga...
Improves muscle tone, flexibility, strength and stamina
Reduces stress and tension
Boosts self esteem
Improves concentration and creativity
Creates sense of well being and calm
Improves circulation and stimulates the immune system - funnily enough, I arrived at my first yoga class whilst I was getting over a cold that had prevented me from swimming. I was looking for something to get me back into the pool. I liked what I found, and now include yoga with my vitamin supplements as something to keep coughs and colds at bay.
And that's just the surface stuff. In fact, most of the benefits mentioned above are secondary to yoga's original purpose... Developed in India, yoga is a spiritual practice that has been evolving for the last 5,000 years or so. The original yogis were reacting, in part, to India's ancient Vedic religion, which emphasized rituals. The yogis wanted a direct spiritual experience, not symbolic ritual. So they developed yoga.
Yoga directly translated from Sanskrit, means "union." According to the yogis, true happiness, liberation and enlightenment comes from union with the divine consciousness or with the transcendent Self. The various yoga practices are a methodology for reaching that goal.
Enlightenment might be a few lifetimes away, but this doesn't deter me. It is a process, and it's progress not perfection along the way.
For me, yoga is an important component of my spirituality. It allows me to connect with my self, and with the bigger picture. But not everyone who steps onto a yoga mat believes, or is even interested in this aspect of practice. Yoga doesn't discriminate. Yoga is for everyone. If you do yoga, chances are that you will feel its psycho-physiological effects.
Moreover, the concept of union has a powerful down-to-Earth meaning. Yoga helps us get in touch with our true selves. Between work, home and all of the demands and stresses in between, it's easy to lose touch with who we are, that core essence with which we were born. Rushing around all day it sometimes feels like the "I" inside is simply the result of the things we do all day - or the effects those things have on our minds, bodies and spirits.
Have you ever heard yourself say "I am hungry" or "I am stressed"? We tend to identify with our conditions. It's like "hungry" or "stressed" is a name (Hi. I'm Stressed. What's your name?) As a result, our identities shift with our moods and conditions. This is a pretty confusing state of affairs for our minds, and bodies. In truth, we are not the conditions we experience or things we do. We are not our jobs or the thousands of tasks that make up our jobs. We are not the sensations or emotions we feel. We are not the car we drive or the house we live in. We are not "S/he Who Must Pay Bills." We are not Mr. and Ms. Stressed.
Strip away the emotions, sensations and conditions and somewhere deep down inside you are still there. Strip it all away and you find out who you really are...
The techniques developed by the yogis to transcend also help us strip away the things that try to mis-define us: the emotions, sensations, desires, achievements and failures of daily life. Through yoga we learn to develop a greater awareness of our physical and psychological states. As a result, we're in a position to better manage our reactions to the thoughts, feelings and responses we have to the various situations we deal with every day.
With greater awareness comes the sensitivity and skill to find and remove the physical and psychological blocks that often keep us from our true selves. We no longer identify with our conditions. Instead of saying, "I am stressed," we begin to say, "I feel stress," or "stress is present." It's a subtle but powerful difference. Or better yet, we say "I feel anxiety and fear, and that's causing stress and in particular it's causing tension in my neck and shoulder." So we breathe deeply to soothe the anxiety. We review the events that led to the onset of those feelings, and in the process they lose their grip on our nervous system. We intentionally relax our shoulder and neck to prevent the stress and tension from building into a permanent condition.
Yoga gives us control of ourselves. It helps cut through the layers of mis-identities that arise in response to our actions, experiences and feelings. It calms the frenzy, clears the clutter and allows us to get back in touch with ourselves.
Yoga is union with self. Or, as Patanjali, one of the great yoga sages, said:
Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind
Tada drashthuh svarupe' vasthanam
Then the true self appears
Yoga is not about self-absorption. Yoga is about being in the world. And it goes further than the postures, breathing and meditation. If you're interested, the tradition emphasizes love, compassion, knowledge and right action as paths toward union.
Whether you pursue yoga as a spiritual path or for its psycho-physiological benefits, yoga is a methodology for developing a deeper experience of your self and the world.
...And it makes you feel really good.
There are probably as many different reasons to explore yoga as there are mats in a class. I would recommend it to anyone without hesitation. When the body, breath and mind work together, positive changes both physical and mental do occur. Explore the ways yoga can benefit you, by stepping onto a mat with an open mind.