YOGA –Not EVEN a Physical Activity??
Recently, while teaching a class next door at the local gym one on my students was a bit perturbed by a statement a gym member made. On vacating the studio she passed the remark that we (the yoga heads) were “going for the easy option”. For some, yoga is not EVEN a physical activity! I hear two main camps of mis-perception about yoga:
- it’s kind of “hanging out” doing some breathing
- It’s twisting yourself into shapes that a body has no place being in!
I can understand those who have never stepped into a yoga class harboring ideas like this. These ideas come from many sources, marketing, social media, integrated into films for comedy effect etc… There is some great stuff out there, but not all of it is invested in the real nitty gritty of the physical and mental effort involved in practicing yoga. Or in the potential transformation and personal growth, if you get hooked.
So, back to the gym… or the track, or the field. Activity is fabulous when the attitude is brought to it that understands the benefits, the challenges, enjoyment of feeling strong and of physical and mental accomplishment… By the way, yoga practice for sports people and athletes can, through a full body workout, develop under utilized muscle groups, improve flexibility and movement in tight overworked muscle groups, align breath connection with movement, enhance their physical and mental state.
What if our motivation for certain activity is fueled by dissatisfaction (or even self loathing) of your body, so that activity is approached as an Assault on the body? The mind got the body into its current condition and I would say it’s involvement in any process of change is imperative!
The mental attitude which drives the need for aesthetic can lead to a separation and conflict between body and mind. The problems come from the mental attitudes that drive the activity, and not with the activity itself.
For most of us our busy and distracted minds need to have something directed to focus on –
- Physical sensation (through physical work that requires effort)
- Technique (your teachers cues for alignment and verbal expression of how and where we may experience the sensations)
- Breath (maintaining a connection to it throughout the practice).
The physical work is essential to clear our blockages, find space/openness in the body and build strength. Asana (posture) is simply one of the eight limbs of yoga.
Until we cultivate a relationship with ourselves, learning what motivates us, what drives us to succeed and also what binds us to patterns that arrest our growth - inner conflict will persist.
The purpose of yoga (the physical practice) is to engage in activities that release us from obstructions. The ones that we develop with time, through inactivity, over use of muscle groups, emotional tension building up as chronic contraction - blockages (granthi) develop in the body. The practice begins to show us where these blockages are in our own bodies, revealed by the challenges we face whilst engaging in postures. Most of us westerners are so blocked in the feet and legs that the leg work may be incredibly challenging until we reap the benefits of this work (when all the rest of our standing work and seats become more accessible).
Another place that effort is applied is maintaining focus and remaining connected to the breath throughout the practice. Not easy. The mind is easily distracted and giving it something directed to do (noticing the breath, physical sensation and technique) is a way of accessing the beginnings of “checking in” not “checking out”. If the mind is agitated this can take some effort and attention. Through paying keen attention we can begin to develop a connection with our bodies and see with some clarity our mental patterns as they arise in the practice. With the guidance of a good teacher, we can explore concepts threaded into the classes such as non-judgment, being present, challenging ourselves (when we are tamasic or dull), not pushing beyond our limits (ahimsa; non-violence), and discernment.
The teachings of yoga are learned on the mat, and are relevant to everyday life. We can take these attitudes, begin to nourish them and digest them so that we own them. This takes patience and practice. It does not in my experience work long-term when you imposed these ideas upon your life. And in the process of developing your practice, if you begin to ponder how your life-style impacts you and contemplate other options, there is an opening for change. Take the time. The practice has taught me how to get in touch with own humanity, forgiveness (and we can all do with a little), and self compassion (which is a work in progress). The individual approaching any practice in a mind/body/spirit manner will have better long term benefits, even if the outward appearance of progress may seem slower.
I came to yoga with a competitive mind, trying to out-stretch other members of the class, pushing beyond my limits and “performing” the postures. And so I can hark back and relate to anyone new to the practice and the attitude that drives this. Many decades on, I am barely grasping the deeper work that takes place by cultivating the breath, keen focus, concentration and patience. As with any practice that has a physical element, the progress that you witness externally through the physical component indicates where you have become strong, more open, more balanced. Without the mental component, I do not think I would have made so many other changes in my life which have liberated me from my own inner body image conflicts and much more. I don’t know if I would have seen what needed to change, had I not seen the elements of them confronting me on the mat.