If you’ve come to this blog, there’s a strong possibility that you have an interest in yoga beyond perfecting your downwards-facing dog. The enduring nature of this mind-body system lies in how it provides a practical philosophy – to be felt, explored, woven into life and ultimately, how it can change our neural pathways and mind-sets to view the world from a whole different perspective.
In my Om Magazine monthly column, I explore how our yoga practice can simply, naturally and beautifully feed out to improve the quality of our lives. Through subtle, but profound changes in our responses, brain chemistry and habits, we can find ourselves listening to our needs more. Attuning to what makes us healthy and happy can mean choices that serve us and those around us better in the long-term.
This is one of the many ways a dedicated yoga practice (that isn’t simply about acrobatics and external appearance) allows us to de-stress and cope with life’s challenges. Taking time to tune in and be with ourselves is a well-needed antidote to the noise and speed of 21st century living.
If you’ve just done a few classes and wanted to get ‘into yoga’ as an exercise regime, you may find yourself faced with the ever-present issue of depth. It’s actually not that easy to just hang around near the surface and resist the connection – with yourself, the world around you, nature – if you open and move the body with a teacher who is inviting you to become aware of your breath and feelings. Even to a small degree, you can find your body responding to this because yoga is a system cleverly designed to make us look, even if we don’t always want to. Everything we do in life has an effect, a repercussion, but we can choose if we notice these subtleties.
Yoga philosophy is often taught experientially, in the way teachers lead posture, breathing and meditation, so we can feel what it means rather than simply intellectually understand. For instance, the first yama (‘restraint’ or code of living) in the Sutras is ahimsa or non-violence. This can be a practical guide in poses and how we transition between them. To be soft even when strong, only play up to the edges and to recognise when we have pushed into control and ambition to get further, is the awareness we are cultivating through ahimsa.
‘breath leads, body follows and mind observes’
In yoga, this instructive aphorism helps us look for when we might be pushing want, will or ego onto postures or intention and step back to listen again to the breath. Working with this kindness and acceptance for our own limitations and needs, we can notice where we might wander into aggression towards ourselves and how very subtle and habitual this can be. As the great T.K.V. Desikachar, founder of Viniyoga and author of The Heart of Yoga said;
‘The success of yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures, but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.’
Yoga off the mat is a phrase often used to describe the after-effects of a physical asana (posture) practice; whether these outward ripples are decided intentions of how to live and changes in attitude, or unintentional currents that spill out from the focus, attention to breath, opening up the body and easeful strength experienced.
People’s relationship with their changing practice is often described as a journey; even a purely physical practice will have some inevitable movement towards deepening a mind-body exploration. There’s a very good reason this happens and it’s the same root cause for the surge in yoga practice in recent decades – we need to listen to our bodies more and be governed by our heads less. As the yoga teacher and author Max Strom said
“we live in an over-stimulated and chronically fatigued society.”
Yoga isn’t actually intending to de-stress you or fix anything, just help you along a route to reveal your true nature. That’s why people who keep it up and stop resisting the deepening feel more freedom, grace under pressure and health benefits. If you don’t like the word spiritual, you don’t need to use it, but don’t let that get in the way of dropping beneath those hardened, constricted layers that modern living creates.
Some key self regulations can help guide you to the kind of embodied practice that flows out into life off the mat:
Soften your eyes and jaw – stress, challenge, focus and concentration can have us furrowing the brow and clenching the teeth. Becoming aware of this habit and softening the whole face with each exhalation – however strong the pose – feeds back to the nervous system that our yoga practice is not yet another source of stress. In this way, we can transition through postures with non-reaction and learn how to lessen knee-jerk reactions in life.
Steady your gaze – our eyes spend much time darting about for new information and to keep up vigilance for potential danger. This is compounded by the micro-movements they do when looking at screens. Eye movements follow thoughts, so drawing a steady gaze to centre in symmetrical (or mostly) poses or to where directed in a drishti (meditation focus) gathers us in to our practice and helps still the mind.
Let go of fidgeting – there are many ways we can distract ourselves from feeling what is coming up in the present moment, especially in poses or practices where we are more still. Our brains are very deft at offering us alternatives, like thinking about what to have for tea, picking our toenails or moving unnecessarily. Even if these distractions seem important, try dropping beneath them to practice breathing into what you might be trying to avoid.