Many people are drawn to yoga for the sense of calm it is reputed to help them find. In fact I heard someone say the other day – when we were discussing her back issues – that she was planning to go to a Pilates class rather than yoga, as she believed yoga was about calm and Pilates more about body conditioning. It heartened me that there was this understanding of the inherent peaceful quality of a yoga practice, even when I was a little saddened at the more mechanical body attitude. We’re missing a trick if we separate out the opportunity for embodiment when we move, stretch and strengthen.
A proficient yoga teacher will guide you to meet the full experience of physicality with the connection that is the union (yoga = to yoke) of mind-body that yoga can bring. The underlying aim of yoga is always to still the mind and it is this reunion of our whole being that brings calm. There is a massive relief to the whole system when we don’t have to expound heaps of energy towards staying scattered out in all directions.
Our minds are set for the vigilance that keeps us fractured. This a protective mechanism that serves us well in threatening scenarios and under stress, but as Rick Hanson, author of the fabulous book “Buddha’s Brain” states, this can leave us with a humming brain constantly running along in the background.
I have heard many students say that when stress is high and they are plagued by the anxiety and agitation that this inner dialogue can produce, that a more vigorous, dynamic physical practice allows them to switch off their mind more. This makes sense, this type of intensity provides lots to do, deep sensations and constant change that distract the mind. It also involves high engagement of proprioception or how we move our bodies through space, with accuracy and grace which is embodying and known to switch off left-brain voices of analysis, evaluation and comparison.
There is no doubt that these effects occur and can give us a dedicated period of calm. Dynamic practice can also help our bodies process stress hormones and their profound knock-on effects. However to only move quickly and rattle through poses does not offer the chance to view the scenery. To move our practice to truly find calm off the mat because and it also because we’re simply not used to being with silence and with ourselves.
Practices where we stay longer and hold a kind, silent space can provide a safe place to experience openness and let our system know how to notice and drop beneath constant brain chatter. This can be the more obvious restorative yoga and meditation, but also simply taking time to feel, open and unfold in postures. Yin yoga has become popular because it offers the chance to stay, deepen and learn to be with the intense sensations that arise.
Personally I find a practice that combines all of these aspects the most informative for my whole mind-body, on and off the mat. When I’m overstimulated from working at a computer at home for example, I’m lucky enough to be able to move to my mat two feet from my desk. At this point, I’ll probably practice straight from standing to ground through the feet and unravel the postural curl-in of sitting. I tend to permeate this kind of working day with a few short practices, but they will always involve coming to still and simply being for much of the time – probably a third. As the physical yoga asana practice was incorporated into this meditation system, it is at its most beautiful as a route to drop beneath constant mind-hum. Spending time in our deepest, truest nature is the way to find deep, abiding calm – not because we’re looking for it (you can’t force relaxation) but because we’re allowing space for it and are then able to stay there when it happens.
How we can stay with calm
The essence of calm is slowing, kindness and quietening. Stress has the opposite speeding up, constricting and forceful effects. Whereas calm can seem to make time open up, stress seems to just gobble it up. Conversely though, when we are really present, time seems to go by strangely fast, but with a deep, expansive quality.
In daily life, the quality of the time we have depends on how much we’re really there. So often we are off somewhere else, musing and ruminating on the past or planning and projecting into the future. To be still, in the present and truly noticing it within the need to change, judge or comment is a skill that often gets buffeted away by the noise and velocity of other distractions.
Being still, quiet and even slow are qualities that are often less appreciated in our culture; ‘less is more’ is often a novel concept and there are tendencies to miss the more subtle and rich moments when we’re quickly rushing through to the next.
We drop into meditative alpha brainwaves (shown to reduce stress hormones) whenever we become truly absorbed in the moment – yoga for some, but also gardening, knitting, painting or golf for others – but also allowing ourselves to be ‘bored’ and with time itself. This is often the barrier for those needing to complement a dynamic practice with other aspects; it’s ok to be bored if you’re using to filling time. Moving to new, subtle layers with more time to explore the whole experience can create new neural pathways in the brain that can be called on to find calm in the face of daily stress.
Letting go to make space for calm
Noticing what we’re holding on to and what’s ready to leave is a flow that we can drop into through a mindfulness practice and the route to calm on and off the mat. It’s very human to want to hold on to thoughts and evaluations, as we can often believe that these make up who we are. Being open to change takes trust that our brain chatter isn’t ‘us’ – try writing down everything you think for 10 minutes and you’ll soon see that there’s an awful lot of noise! Letting go doesn’t mean losing ourselves, but it does mean releasing things we that no longer serve us and being open to more rewarding patterns.