Yoga is a practice that has the potential to transform body and mind. But, what do we mean by that? Well, according to Ida Rolf, who pioneered an approach to bodywork called Structural Integration, the structure of our body is moulded by our habits and beliefs.
If every time you curl your shoulders over when you speak, or puff up your chest, for instance, this gesture becomes a habit. You just adjusted your posture, right? Great, bringing awareness to these habits is the first part in the process of working with them – that is noticing if they’re helpful, or not.
Most gestures come about because of a certain belief we have about ourselves. Over time, the gestures that we use, become habit. Each time we repeat this habit we reinforce an internal belief. Over months and years, these habits begin to shape the posture and structure of our bodies. Just like doing a bicep curls with weights develops your biceps, or swimming front crawl strengthens your shoulders. Are you still with me? I’ll just wait while you check Instagram. Nice habit.
Great, you’re back. All those habits that we’ve created throughout our life, the ones that shape our body and reinforce our world view are laid down in our body like a map. Every gesture, habit and belief has been helpful to us at some point. Because of them we have been able to cope with a particular life situation. We are humans, we have experiences, we adapt and change to our emotional and physical environment. We’re pretty clever.
As we grow as people, however, many of those beliefs may no longer serve us that well. It might be time to chuck out some of the moth-eaten clothes in our wardrobe that don’t fit us anymore, and replace them with a new dress or cosy jumper that’s just the right size. There are two ways to develop new beliefs about ourselves and, subsequently, to undo old patterns and discover new gestures and modes of self-expression. Don’t you feel great in those new clothes?
Talking therapies, such as counselling or psychotherapy, are so effective because they can reframe a person’s perspective of themselves and change their world view. This, in turn, can remould their experience of themselves and how they inhabit their bodies. When we feel seen, heard and our experience is validated, then we feel lighter and freer, like a weight has lifted from our lives. Talking to someone we trust and who meets us where we are, without judgment, has a powerful, positive impact on body and mind.
Yoga asana (posture and movement) primarily works with the body. And working with the body is another powerful way to shed old habits – ways of moving and being – and create new ones. That’s why it’s not uncommon for people, and very normal, for people to feel big emotions during a yoga class.
Tears can often well up – and flow if we allow them. Yoga creates the conditions for release, for shedding layers, letting go of what no longer serves us. So, after a just a few months of doing the physical practice of yoga, people often start to make changes to their lives. Some of these might be small changes, like making healthier food choices; some of these might be more profound, like ending a significant relationship, changing career or moving house.
A yoga class can complement, but is never a substitute for, talking therapies. Yet, when we combine talking with moving in a safe, held space in which we feel comfortable to explore ideas, feelings and needs then magic can happen. We begin to think and feel differently about ourselves, noticing where to let go, where to bring in more support, what we want to welcome into our lives.
I have taught pregnancy and postnatal yoga for over a decade, and have attended women’s circles for the past two or three years. Each class that I’ve taught for women who are preparing to give birth be mothers, or are in the throws of early mothering, has opened with a space in which women can bring the whole of themselves to class.
There’s never any obligation to share, and women are always invited to share only what they feel most comfortable with. Over the weeks and months, however, women begin to open up. They discover that there is a connection with other women – we’re all going through the same thing, we’re not alone, we have the same kinds of questions. They also strengthen their voices, and cultivate the confidence to make choices that most clearly align with their sense of self.
During the posture and movement, it is a delight, then, for me as a teacher to tailor the practice to the needs of the group. Knowledge – knowing a little more about the mood, feeling and experience of the women in the room – combined with intuition, leads to cues, visualisation and gentle guidance on how to work with their experience.
Whatever stage we are in the women's life cycle – planning for a baby or entering the peri-menopausal years – a circle of women can give us strength, bring clarity and help us to feel and move into the next stage of our lives with gestures, habits and beliefs that will help us to be the best version of ourselves we can be.
Now, that’s magic.