Yoga has gained massive popularity in recent years. When given this topic, I could write about how yoga is amazing for flexibility; how both strength and suppleness combine to make a mobile individual, and how awesome this feels in everyday life. A mobile human is a super human. I could talk about how yoga relieves tension, can aid in relaxation, improves sleep, which in turn, aids growth and energy rejuvenation for the next day.
All that is entirely and utterly true, with a whole load of scientific research behind it to back it up. Yoga starts to re-balance the two parts of our nervous system and it starts to address muscular imbalances in the body too. The highly stimulated sympathetic nervous system tends to rule a lot of our modern, stressful life, and the practice of yoga starts to encourage the parasympathetic nervous system (rest, de-stress and recovery). Yoga tones the vagus nerve and changes our brainwaves.
This is fantastic and useful to know, but it’s the tip of the iceberg. I would be doing yoga, and you, a major disservice if I condense yoga down into another workout or way to relax.
Yoga goes way deeper than that.
‘Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.’ - The Bhagavad Gita
The different aspects of yoga, of which the postures (or asanas) form just one part, together represent a journey of self-transformation and realisation. Yoga changes the relationship you have with yourself. This has monumental consequences - for our purpose, happiness, lives and relationships.
One big stumbling block for many people is ‘not being able to do it’. Yoga is a practice - it’s not about being able to do it. It’s not about what the postures look like. Most people’s first experience of yoga could be described as ‘weird and hard’. Saying you are not flexible enough for yoga is like saying you are too dirty to take a bath.
Yoga does not require any degree of perfection, put togetherness or ability. It asks that you show up; every messy part of you.
And if the philosophy of yoga described below sounds weird too right now - give it a go. Let the practice speak for itself and give it time to show what it could offer you. If we shelved everything that we thought sounded a bit weird, then where would society be?
With consistent practice, the practices of yoga start to change our relationship with our thoughts. A simple example of this, is when you are out driving in traffic. If someone displays some rather poor driving skills you might beep on the horn, gesticulate wildly, and throw a few swear words. In that moment, you are anger. You identify with that emotion to the point of being it.
We all have these emotions or identities that we construct for ourselves. They are stories that you use to define yourself, and they can also set up self-imposed limitations. I am shy, fat, ugly, strong, bad at languages, good at my job... We construct these stories like walls around us and our lives, because if we don't have these identities, then we are faced with an even BIGGER question ‘who am I?’. Humans will do a lot to avoid that question.
With yogic practices, in that situation of road rage, you might witness the poor driving, you might even witness the anger but you have the distance within your head and body to separate yourself from that anger if you choose. This also gives you the space to react differently.
The anger is a cloud floating across a blue sky. You can jump into that cloud and BE anger, or you can identify with the sky; it is always vast, calm, peaceful and is always there. You choose to watch the cloud float upon its way. The sky is your true nature. And as you begin to live more fully in that knowledge, you begin to find more freedom and fulfillment. Yoga is a way to disentangle yourself from whatever stops you from feeling free.
If the postures are just part of it, I hear you ask, how else do you practice yoga? Yoga means to connect, unite or ‘yoke’. Yoga is a philosophy; a way of life. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, there is an eight-fold path leading to liberation (if you don’t like the word liberation, substitute it with one that resonates more with you; freedom, separation, detachment etc).
Yamas - these are ethical restraints/disciplines including non-violence, truthfulness, non-coveting, sexual integrity and truthfulness. Ever wondered why you meet a lot of vegetarian and vegan yogis? It’s not a ‘jump on the bandwagon’ decision, it’s because of ‘ahimsa’, non-violence.
Niyamas - observances, including cleanliness, contentment, self-discipline, self-study and surrender to a higher source (some people struggle with the meaning of this one - it means surrender to God/nature/the Universe - relinquishing what you don’t have control over)
Asanas - the physical postures. This is what most people think of as yoga. The physical postures traditionally prepared the mind for meditation. It tends to be the physical practice that draws Westerners in initially - as it did me! A physical practice leads many onto a much deeper journey.
Pranayama - breathing techniques. Your breath is an incredibly powerful tool for bringing you into the now; it is often used in other mindfulness techniques.
Pratyahara - withdrawal of the senses
Dharana - focused concentration
Dyana - meditation. Limbs 3-6 ultimately are all part of the process that leads you to meditation. Which is NOT, not thinking. Meditation is the practice of choosing to return to the moment every time that you notice yourself caught in a thought or feeling. It’s through this process that we powerfully influence our brain chemistry and start to change our relationship with our thoughts.
Samadhi - traditionally known as bliss, or enlightenment, which sounds very airy fairy to a lot of modern people! Samadhi is ultimately, non-detachment. A full realisation that you are not your thoughts and your feelings. You are connected to everything else.
One thing that bothers me, and which I must mention before I close. There is a plethora of women in yoga in the Western world today. Social media is awash with yoga leggings and sports bras. In fact, yoga was once solely practised by male (some of the poses require modification for the female body). Modern Western culture often puts females in a more socially accepted position to discuss their feelings and express themselves and therefore they come in their droves to yoga. This grieves me. Males in our society need a yoga practice just as much, if not more (just look at the suicide statistics for young males). Men, this is your invitation.
In summary, if you’re looking to lose weight, help your mental health, learn more about yourself and grow as a person, improve your nutrition, energy levels, get stronger; male, female, young, old, good health, poor health...
Start with yoga.
It’s not just a work out. It’s a tool for life transformation.