Yoga is a practical philosophy originating in Ancient India. It consists of eight different ‘limbs’ or branches, one of which is the physical practice of ‘hatha yoga’. The most commonly recognised aspects of hatha yoga in the West are postures (asanas), breathwork (pranayama) and meditation (dhyana).
The word ‘yoga’ itself means the yoking or union of body and mind. Yoga is a practice that creates a sense of wholeness within yourself. This wholeness is a natural state – the body is always trying to return to a state of homeostasis, or balance. The more energy, mental or physical, that the body expends in returning to homeostasis, the less energetic you will feel.
When you practice yoga with a sensitivity to the needs of your body – that is, allowing the body to guide you towards postures rather than imposing them according to an external image of what they should look like – you can gradually begin to unravel postural habits and let go of tension and holding in the body and mind. This frees up energy or ‘prana’. Prana is the yogic term for our life force. When prana flows freely, we naturally have more energy and feel more alive.
In addition, moving into, out of and through the pretzel-like postures ensures that you regularly take the body through different planes of movement. Repetitive, habitual movements over time lead to injury. Yoga, therefore, is a practical way of counteracting the repetitive movements that are inherent to many modern lifestyles, as well as challenging your body to explore others types and ranges of movements. In this way, yoga is a practice that enables you to live well into your life. Yoga helps you do what you love for longer because you are continually undoing unhelpful habits and replacing them with healthier, more useful ways of moving, being and breathing.
Rather than viewing yoga as a form of exercise, it may be more helpful to consider it as a restorative and supportive practice that benefits every aspect of your life. If you are considering including yoga in your daily or weekly routine, here’s five key points you might like to consider:
The body moves as a whole
Traditional anatomy dissects the human body and separates it into pieces. This is a methodical way of segmenting and labelling the body in order to try and understand it better. However, it is not so useful when it comes to understanding and experiencing the body moving and breathing as one living organism.
Bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, organs, soft tissue, everything is intricately woven together. When you apply force, for instance, to one part of the body, it is felt through the whole system. You cannot isolate muscles or different parts of the body. Each is connected to the whole, and each part affects the whole. With this in mind, the more balance there is in the body, the freer and easier you will feel, move and look in your body. You will be more ‘at ease in yourself’.
With regular practice and with the help of a good teacher, the body awareness that you can (re)learn in yoga begins to permeate your daily life, so that you start to move better throughout more of your day. By turn, it also helps you to become more resilient. You will be less likely to ‘crumple’ into your postural and mental habits under stress, and bounce back more easily if and when you do.
Yoga helps to keep the body ‘well-oiled’
The body likes to move, it is designed for movement. In between the layers of fascia there is a fluid that keeps the layers upon layers of connective tissues slippier than ice on ice. Movement keeps those layers well-oiled. If an area of the body is not moving regularly then the fluid starts to dry up, the layers of connective tissues become stickier and gradually they begin to stiffen and harden. In severe cases, calcification can occur and the tissues can become as hard as bone. In this way, your habits can be ‘set‘ in your posture and then laid down in your structure.
Yoga is one way of keeping more of your body moving through a wider repertoire of movements throughout your day, week, month, year and life! Yoga may therefore reduce the effects of a lack of movement or of repetitive movements, during which you are usually overusing some regions of the body, and underusing others. Yoga also has the added benefit of increasing body awareness, so that you begin to notice what you are doing with your body and how you are doing it. This may lead to you making small adjustments that contribute to greater ease and freedom of movement in the long term.
Give your body time to soften and undo
Pulling on the muscles to ‘stretch’ them is a false economy. Muscles that feel ‘tight’ are already tight because there is undue strain on them due to imbalance in the body. Pulling or stretching these muscles only makes them tighter. The more you pull on the muscle, the more it starts to resist the pull by hardening the tissues. What’s more, stretching muscles and then resting causes further stiffening.
Contrary to popular belief, yoga practiced well is not about stretching. Yoga is a method of bringing the body back into balance, returning the body-mind to homeostasis. This may require many of us to change our mindset about yoga and stretching. A practical way to do this is by slowly working around or playing with the ‘edges’ of the stretch in a dynamic way. As you’re moving gently towards and away from the stretch, imagine that you are letting go of tension in the whole body with each outbreath.
This also has the effect of relaxing the body and reducing the levels of stress hormones in the body. Stress hormones such as cortisol harden the tissues. Moving more, moving well and finding ways of actively relaxing the body and mind help to create a much stronger and more flexible system.
If you ‘feel the stretch‘ when you’re doing yoga, then you’re pulling too much. Imagine working at 70% of that stretch or less and taking a gentler, more gradual breath-by-breath approach. Tissues take about 20mins to soften, so if you spend 10 or more breaths easing into a posture, relaxing on the exhale, resting into gravity, feeling for connections through the body, then the posture will be a very different experience from the first breath to the last. You may even be surprised how practicing slowly allows your body to release and open much more than you’re used to. The result is that you will feel lighter and freer in your body, which is a joyful, pleasurable experience.
Enjoy more ‘nutritious‘ movement
Unless you have a very active job, it is likely that a large proportion of your day is sedentary. Exercise is a symptom of, or a prescription for, a sedentary culture. Even marathon runners can live sedentary lifestyles – there is a tendency to assume that you’ve done your ‘miles’ for the day, so you can spend the rest of it at your desk or on the sofa ‘relaxing’.
Yoga includes many different kinds of movements, such as squats, balances, twists and reaches, that many people have lost from their daily diet of movement. These are the kinds of movements that your hunter and gatherer ancestors would have done frequently – they moved to live, whereas these days moving is optional and even a ‘leisure‘ activity.
Adding greater variation of movement and integrating it into your daily life is an easy way to feed your body with more ‘nutritious’ movement, so that more of your body is moving more of the time. Some examples of this might be swapping between a sitting, standing and low-level work station throughout the day, going barefoot at home, running in minimal footwear (you need to build up to this gradually), going furniture-free in your house, even chopping your food yourself rather than buying it pre-cut from the supermarket counts!
Growing and preparing your own food would take this a step further by putting the movement back into eating that you’ve effectively ‘outsourced‘ to other people and machines. This is a great way of breaking the cycle of guilt that traps many of us in our relationship with eating and exercise, adding more movement into your life, and connecting with nature and the land, which brings its own sense of wellbeing that is now well-documented.
Breath is your ally
The simplest way to find out if you’re moving well and in alignment, is to check in with your breath. If your breath feels held, shallow or tight, then there is tension in your system. Whether you are doing yoga, exercise, driving, working at your desk or any other activity, you always have the opportunity to:
• notice your breath by bringing attention to the inhale, and the exhale
• encourage your breathing to be a little deeper and fuller by dropping your shoulders and relaxing your jaw and belly
• imagine/visualise that your whole body is letting go and surrendering to the present moment on the outbreath.
People can struggle with this because they are just not used to doing it. The easiest way to bridge this barrier is to start – begin by noticing your breath when you are doing a routine chore. For instance, each time you wash up or have a shower, commit to counting ten breaths, focusing on the exhale, and noticing how you experience the breath. Then experiment with how you can influence the breath by relaxing your body. Gradually pair this practice with other habits and you will start to become more aware of your breath throughout more of the day.
The power of yoga really does comes from cultivating breath awareness. The breath is the only conscious link you have to the autonomic nervous system, which controls heart rate, digestion and sexual function among other essential bodily functions. When you can tune into and focus on your breath, then you can learn how to bring yourself into balance, homeostasis, how to return to your natural state of rest and relaxation. It focuses your mind too. This creates strength, resilience and self-awareness. Self-awareness enables you to notice your physical and mental habits and to make positive changes if and when you need to.
‘Intelligent Yoga’ by Peter Blackaby
‘Yoga Mind, Body and Sprit: A Return to Wholeness’ by Donna Farhi
‘Awakening the Spine’ by Vanda Scaravelli
‘Move your DNA’ by Katy Bowman of nutritiousmovement.com
Gil Hedley’s ‘The Fuzz’ speech on You Tube https://youtu.be/_FtSP-tkSug
Liberated Body Podcast series www.liberatedbody.com