Its undeniable, yoga’s everywhere! Sure, some of it’s silly psuedo stuff such as bendy workouts from fitness gurus, goat yoga, and yoga and wine pairings. Behind the hype there’s real transformation happening with the authentic application of this ancient wisdom. A few examples being yoga helping war veterans, sexual assault victims and other trauma survivors recover from post-traumatic stress disorder, cardiac rehab patients managing stress and blood pressure, and folks with anxiety and depression challenges finding lasting relief.
A recent study by The Yoga Alliance revealed that 36 million Americans now practice yoga, up from 20 million in 2012 (full report HERE). I believe this is because it’s the oldest and most effective “wellness program” around. For thousands of years yoga has enhanced the physical, mental and emotional health of those who embrace it. The word itself means to bind, join, attach or yoke. Yoga unifies body, mind and soul harmoniously. When these three main aspects of self are integrated we remember our True Self, ATMAN-“Spark of Divineness.” It’s from this foundation that health, happiness, and self-empowerment flourish.
I have an acronym for yoga: Your Original Gifts Awakened. What are the gifts? The gift of embodiment and the gift of your dharma, your passion, your calling, your love.
Yoga can do so much more for us than simply stretch the body and ease the mind. It can open our world wider, heal our deepest wounds and help us manifest our best life. How you ask? Put simply, yoga works through the physical body to become aware of and clear what clouds our inner wisdom. Blockages can exist on the physical, mental and emotional levels affecting our subtle body, the energetic aspect of our Being that we cannot see but definitely feel. Yoga helps us heal “samskaras:” impressions derived from past experiences which influence our current responses and behaviors. These sabotage us and inhibit us in our “dharma;” our cosmic purpose. While yoga is spiritual, it is not a religion. Simply put, the “goal” of yoga is “moksha” which means liberation.
The 8 Limbs
Contrary to popular belief, yoga is way more than movement and meditation. There’s actually eight parts to the system. These “limbs” are practiced together rather than in a linear way. Most people begin with physical poses, breathing practices and concentration. It’s important, however, to attend to all limbs both on and off the mat. Applying the many facets of yoga to your life balances the primary energies of “ha” and “tha”; the masculine and feminine energies. This creates balance in the self and the world. Here’s a brief overview of the The 8 fold path:
Yamas & Niyamas
These first two limbs are yoga’s ethical guidelines. They outline skillful living to help us take ownership of our lives and direct it towards our higher calling. They give us infinite opportunities to truly transform things. Rather than thinking of these as a mandatory “to-do list,” view them as invitations to act in ways that promote inner and outer peace. As means to create harmony within, and in relationship to the environment and others. Where there is harmony, consciousness can expand and lead us to a natural revelations of insight into our human nature giving us the ability to align with love and allow joy to arise.
Asana literally means “seat” describing the physical poses of the yogic path. Poses can be static or flowing. Increased flexibility, strength and relaxation are the most obvious benefits with the deeper effects becoming more apparent with consistent practice. Asana reconnects us to the wisdom of our bodies. The more aware of our body we are, the harder it is to engage in addictive, habitual or compulsive behaviors that are self-destructive or harmful to others. Poses are also designed to act on the body’s energy centers (chakras) to balance the subtle body. Imbalances here contribute to body image distortions and our addictive emotional and behavioral states. You can learn more about the chakras in this blog.
Asana is a metaphor for life. Learning “to sit” in uncomfortable situations physically empowers us to do this elsewhere in life. When we get unsettled or feel imbalanced we can more readily come to the breath and ease the tension within the body and mind. This keeps us from defaulting to escapism which may provide relief in the short term but suffering over the long haul. Here are some key points:
- Practice “ahimsa,” non-violence towards your body.
- Follow instructions for alignment & breathing as guided by the teacher.Make movements slow, focused & intentional.
- Honor your body’s capabilities with acceptance & compassion.Avoid comparing, competing or having expectations.
- Drop resistance, relax into poses rather than forcing them.
- Let yourself BE instead of focusing on doing.
- DO NOT do yoga for a “yoga body.” Do it to empower yourself authentically.
To quote Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid movies, “no breath, no life.” It only makes sense that to improve our lives we must cultivate the breath. Commonly called “breath work,” pranayama actually means “the extension of life force.” Different from our usual, automatic breathing, pranayama is intentional and consciously regulated. Pranayama transcends deeper layers of tension in the body to unlock our innate healing capacities. Asana without pranayama is simply calisthenics. It’s important to be deliberate in controlling the breath but not forceful. Always begin a yoga practice with a few minutes of stillness in the body and observance of your breath. Use the following basic techniques during your asana practice:
Dirgah Breath- The complete yogic breath. In this pranayama we simply focus on the full capacity of our lungs breathing evenly both in and out. Relax your belly as you breathe in letting it expand fully. Gently pull it back in towards the spine as you exhale. Build the breath to become deeper, slower and more complete on both inhalation and exhalation. Fill and empty all lung chambers evenly.
Ujjahi Breath- The sounding yogic breath. In this technique slightly constrict the back of the throat to create on ocean sound as you breathe in and out of the nose. This practice soothes the overactive nervous system and quiets the mind. It also increases oxygenation throughout the body.
This stage is called “sense withdrawal.” Consciousness is internalized in order that the sensations from the senses of taste, touch, sight, hearing and smell don’t reach their respective centers in the brain. It’s the practice of noticing what we are experiencing without reacting or attaching to it so we can live awakened rather than addicted.
The practice of concentration enhances health by quieting the “vritti” mind thereby abating stress. Obsessed with improving lives and sense of self through body change, status, wealth, etc., it is fundamentally the stress generated by our minds that causes and/or exacerbates all dis-ease. Many techniques are used to bring the mind into the moment such as mantra (chanting), yantra (guided imagery), mudras (hand postures) and candle gazing. Breath is the first and foremost point of focus.
Dyhana means state of meditation. The primary purpose of asana is to get the mind and body “fit” for meditation. Not fit like able to run a marathon, but fit to actually sit still and be with yourself. Only in stillness can we reconnect fully to our true nature of divineness and God as we understand that personally. Meditation has limitless benefits just a few of which are a healthier body and body image.
This is the moksha mentioned above. To experience yourself as whole, as one with all. This is where suffering dissolves and we become liberated. It’s not a place you get to and stay, but the experience of harmony with mind, body and soul that we have to keep coming back to intentionally as life naturally pulls us out of alignment. Forgetting and remembering, it’s a dance and can be a joy.
Throughout your yoga practice stay present with current thoughts, feelings and body sensations watching your experience rather than thinking about it. When the mind drifts away to inner dialogue, past /future thinking or judgment, simply notice that’s happening and return back to witnessing. Remember that yoga is a practice, there is no autopilot to peace. Yoga’s benefits are profound and lasting with consistent practice.
Tips for Finding Beginner & Body Image Friendly Yoga Resources
- Look for the words restorative, gentle, beginner or slow flow in the class description.
- The following styles are usually appropriate: Kripalu, Yin, Anusara.
- Avoid classes described as power, hot yoga, yoga burn or any class that targets specific body parts such as “Yoga for Abs.”
- The following styles of yoga may be unsafe or counter-productive to recovery: Bikram, Ashtanga, Vig Vinyasa.
- Avoid yoga classes/poses set in a gym or “yoga fusion” offerings.
Let go of perfection, there are no mistakes, only learning. Accept where you are, embrace your resistance, and be open to growth through experience. Honor your humanity and learn from all teachers.
When the restlessness of the mind, intellect and self is stilled through the practice of yoga, the yogi, by the grace of spirit within, finds fulfillment. Then she knows the joy eternal which is beyond the pale of the senses. The real meaning of yoga is this-a deliverance from contact with pain and sorrow.
~BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga
As a breeze ruffles the surface of a lake and distorts the images reflected therein, so also the chitta vritti (worried, whirling mind) disturbs the peace of the mind. The still waters of a lake reflect the beauty around it. When the mind is still, the beauty of the Self is seen reflected in it. The yogi stills his mind by constant study and freeing himself from desires. The eight stages of yoga teach the way.
~BKS Iyengar, Light of Yoga
The body has so much to teach us. It is the first book of life. It reveals the secrets of life. If you can tune into the body, you won’t have to learn the laws of health, or harmony, or love, or peace anywhere else. Your body will dictate it to you every time.
~Yogi Amrit Desai