Updated: Jan 29, 2022
Yoga is not necessarily a "quick fix" for whatever one might be looking for, yet many are hooked on the practice after coming to just one class. Nonetheless, I've heard many comments that though they loved yoga from the very first moment it took years to establish a consistent practice. And this is where the greatest benefits occur.
1. Commitment to Consistency
Only through practice will one begin to experience the ongoing benefits of yoga. The unwinding of habitually tightly held muscles and connective tissues takes time and patience. The misalignments we've created in our bodies through years of unconscious movements or postures require time to return to homeostasis, balance and wellbeing. It is through consistency that we find the joy and freedom in our bodies once again. My partner, a bodybuilder of 75 years of age, told me recently that he has noticed in his everyday movements a new ability to bend forward from standing, like when reaching for something on the floor, a movement he hasn't been able to do for many years without getting on all fours. This is a result of his consistent yoga practice in the last ten months, since Covid-19 came to town. He had never practiced yoga before but has been consistent, practicing three to four times a week!
Yet - there is always something to move us in another direction...that task that needs finishing, a last minute phone call, an appointment that you really wanted to schedule opens up just at class time, someone is asking for your attention...
Making consistent time for yoga is perhaps the most important commitment. It opens doors to understanding oneself, understanding and unpacking stored emotions that, once released allow for greater joy and creativity, releasing tension in mind and body which allows freed up energy for more fluidity in one's pursuits, and simply makes space to just feel really good which nourishes everything else in life. Making time for yoga consistently just may be what makes everything else run smoothly in your life!
Once on the mat it's important to become aware of the breath. In our stressed out culture many of us are holding our breath much of the time, or breathing very shallowly, often breathing up in the top of our chest. This is a stress response. This is due to a proclivity to respond to the constant bombardment of news that is seemingly of great concern, or traffic that has us "on our toes" and in survival mode. Perhaps issues with finances or interpersonal relationships have one tied up in knots and the result is we barely breathe...but most of us are not even aware of this.
Breath is foundational to the practice of yoga. The breath not only liberates the body, it liberates the emotional being as well as the mind. The body is wired in a miraculous way and it is the breath that is communicating with all our various systems sending messages of the need for "fight, flight or freeze" or for the ability to come to "rest, digest, reproduce".
The fight or flight response is a survival mode that is part of our ancient brain and the Sympathetic Nervous System's (SNS) way of protecting us from danger, giving us adrenalized energy to fight or run, or in extreme situations, to immobilize and freeze. When we are at ease it is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) response that gives us the go ahead to relax, digest the contents of our bellies and
even enjoy intimate pleasures. and feel good. It is here in this PNS response that our muscles, ligaments, and all our fascia can relax and let go of held emotions, blocked energy and even pain, giving way to more freedom to enjoy life.
Yoga slows us down and brings our attention to our breath and helps us develop an awareness for this process that always accompanies us through each and every moment of our lives.
If you live in a body you will eventually want to understand it's mechanics. The alternative is comparable to what may happen if you forget to put oil in your car or if you pour water into where the oil goes. Understanding good bio-mechanics might alleviate difficulty, discomfort and pain sometime in the future or may offer skills that bring you into an understanding that balances what has been out of balance.
Alignment principles benefit everyone: old and young, dancer, athlete, bodybuilder and runner, or those with a sedentary lifestyle, we all benefit when we understand and apply good body alignment principles.
Moving with awareness during your practice is key. You know your body best. Your yoga teacher may point the way with verbal cues and demonstrations, but you must apply these as your particular body dictates. Never go into sharp pain. Always listen, pay attention, to what your body is telling you. Feeling the stretch is great but must be accompanied by support of the muscles. Keeping muscular engagement through asanas, postures, is important. In this way the joints, ligaments and tendons are supported. The use of yoga props can be so very beneficial in one's practice and ought not be thought of as for beginners only. Props give even the seasoned yogi an opportunity to dive deeper into an understanding of their individual practice, bringing awareness to subtle aspects of the dynamics in their body.
Taking these alignment principles learned while on your mat into everyday life is a magical practice that will increase the enjoyment factor in everything you do!
Are you prone to the highest of expectations from yourself? Yoga is not a competition...not even with yourself. As we practice yoga all sorts of opportunities for self-criticism and comparisons show up. We might hear in our minds thoughts like "What's wrong with you? You used to be able to do this pose!" or " you did this perfectly yesterday, what's up now?" or "you don't look anything like those Instagram posts of yogis...you're not really a yogi, you're a fake. Just give it up!" . Perhaps it's a bit more subtle, and sounds more like "push just a little more" or " you can get your head all the way to your knee" when you know you're at your full extension for that day.
The mind can be a tormenting critic, a perpetual judge of everything we do. We live in a culture where excellence has been co-opted by a false perfectionism created by advertising and media programming that obliterates reality, leaving many of us with a sense of lacking, in most everything. Some of us still hear the voices of a demanding parent which is now the voice in our own head, demanding more and more.
Yoga is a practice of acceptance. Being in the moment with just what is. Breathing into just this moment. Finding presence. Yoga is not a competition, even with oneself. What was true yesterday may not be true today. Perhaps yesterday in your Downward Facing Dog your heels were on the mat, your legs fully extended, but not so today. Perhaps your backbend was deeper last week and today, not so much. Through our yoga practice we learn to appreciate the moment we’re living in and develop self-acceptance. Yoga will help us flow with each moment with compassion...for ourselves. With self-compassion we develop an understanding that cultivates compassion for all others. This is just exactly what is needed in our world today!
5. Attitude of Gratitude
It has been said by many that gratitude is a wonderful antidote to depression. I read today that depression is a pathway to wellbeing given to us when our SNS is urging us to shut down due to paralyzing circumstances, situations of danger. It is an unfortunate reality in our world today that anxiety is prevalent as well, among young and old alike. We can benefit from our yoga practice as it focuses us toward breath, acceptance and gratitude. Gratitude, appreciation for something, anything, shifts one out of the paralysis of depression and into rejoining life again. Gratitude is a calming balm for the anxious mind.
Yoga is a practice that can and will lift one out of the doldrums and into a sense of appreciation. Moving that stuck energy mentioned above, one begins to feel vibrant, radiant, expanding into more well-being and maybe even into happiness and contentment.
Breathing into gratitude connects us to life. To the earth, our planet. To the consistent rise and fall of the chest and belly as we take in breath and let it out. Gratitude for all the facets of life, those who have gone before us, for our own life, and for life itself.