Yoga is far more than just physical postures, but, generally, when we attend a yoga class, that is what we expect to learn and participate in. Yoga philosophy classes, while esoterically interesting, will never appeal to the majority of people who, at least initially, come to class for a bit of a work out. But, while the yoga purists might tut tut and mutter under their breath that asanas are virtually irrelevant, I absolutely beg to differ. Here are some of the reasons why:
Understanding the “gross” body
I hate to use the word “gross”, but a lot of the time we end up sleep-walking our way through much of the daily grind, without ever tuning in to our physical body. This means we often have no concept of how much stress and tension has lead to uncomfortable and sometimes crippling aches and pains. Couple this with a sedentary lifestyle, tasks that involve micro-movements and terrible posture and as time passes, we might find that limited movement and stiffness begins to limit our lives. A physical yoga practise helps to unlock some of this tension. It also helps us become aware of when and where we create and hold on to tension in our bodies. When the body unlocks, the mind becomes clearer (and vice-versa). We have more energy. Yet, for most of us, tension is such an ingrained way of being that we have no idea we are doing it. Nothing that affects us can ever be changed unless (or until) we become aware that we play a conscious part in how things are likely to unfold.
Understanding the “emotional” body
If we have no idea why it is that we react the way that we do to certain things and we simply accept that this is the way “we are” then we might never learn to have control over a runaway mind. Understanding that we are quite clever; that we can engage the “witness” to observe when certain “feelings” and emotions arise in us, can be a useful tool to avoid over-identification with negative thoughts. In a physical yoga class, many poses and vinyasas can feel over-whelming at first. We might feel self-conscious and fearful that everyone is “watching us” when we first walk into a room with new people. However, once the class gets going, often there is way too much internal focus needed – directions to observe and move certain body parts, left and right – for the mind to wander off and chatter in this way. We could also say that the physical practise of yoga is a little like putting ourselves in to an artificially induced stressful situation but working towards being calm in that place. We can do this by observing all those uncomfortable feelings, recognising them as little more than “ego” and just “being” with it. Hopefully this is then transferable to real life where we can’t just walk away from certain situations or give them up just because they are uncomfortable or painful in some way. I personally believe that a doable, but slightly stronger, physical practise is a useful tool for life. Not only will it will help us feel stronger and more empowered, but we will find that the mind stills a lot more easily at the end of each class when we take rest. This sense of calm is bound to trickle into our daily life.
Vinyasa yoga – the dance of the universe?
Therefore, I like to think of vinyasa yoga as being “the dance of the universe”, being played out individually on each person’s mat. Just like each day begins, we start the class in silence and stillness, gradually and gently increasing and intensifying each movement. The class might reach a crescendo right in the middle and then it is time to wind down again, move more slowly and begin to relax once again into stillness as we do at the end of each day. How was your practise? Were you in the zone? Was there some kind of flow happening?, ie, a sense that time had slowed down or sped up? How did you feel while you were practising? Enthusiastic? Bored? Frustrated? Not with it? Like giving up? Stiff? Sore? Fabulous? These are the observations we can make during our physical practise but there is no need to become attached to them for they are bound to change. Can we do the same thing as we go through our normal daily life? Observing? Watching? Being mindful of it all but then simply letting certain things be?
Rarely in life do worthwhile things just come about automatically with ease and comfort. Think about it: There is usually some work involved or some firm foundations to set down first. You wouldn’t just wake up one morning, pack a bag and go off to climb Mount Everest or walk the Kokoda Trail! The same applies when it comes to successful careers, university degrees, polite and well adjusted children and all happy relationships. We have to be prepared to put in the effort – especially in the beginning. And it really helps if we can continually engage mindfulness while we are at it. Noting how we react and how we are during our physical yoga practise teaches us lots about our personal selves and how we conduct our lives. What do we need to work on? Can we begin something and stick with it and not give up the moment we feel a little uncomfortable or it gets difficult? Interestingly, as parents we try to instil this ideal in our kids, but many adults give up just as easily.
A “moving” meditation
I believe everyone should have a go at practising yoga but don’t give up if you don’t find a style that suits you straight away. Personally, with my tendency towards stress and anxiety but love of movement, before I discovered vinyasa yoga, I tried many classes that were a little too slow – I couldn’t concentrate. So for me, when it comes to being focussed, physically challenging is easier! Physically easier is harder because my mind begins to wander and I find myself becoming distracted. These days, having practised regularly now since 1998, I like to think it would be a little different but there is no escaping the fact that the challenge for my body helps immensely when it comes to quietening my mind. A strong yoga practise should not be approached like an olympic challenge though. The body should be active and firm, but the mind and the internal self, calm and relaxed. We need to give ourselves permission to come down and rest and/or take the modified option if we need to. We need to understand that we are also practising “ahimsa” (non-violence) and to not be aggressive when it comes to our body. Often, when we let go of the struggle to achieve, we finally get it – “yoga” that is. But after all those years of competitive, ego-driven activity and conventional exercise – often as a weight-loss tool – it can be hard to make the switch. Once we do though, we realise that although there is nothing like a long savasana, the physical aspect can be just as soothing if we always simply just try our best. So relax, let go and focus on the moment instead of continually striving towards some imaginary prize. Another useful analogy for daily life!