It is a fact, yoga increases your flexibility, I have seen this many times in my classes, someone walks in as stiff as an iron board, but after just a few months of practice there is a marked increase in flexibility. But is it just the yoga asana affecting the physical body or are there more behind this sudden change in the body?
Sure, it will be fruitless to deny the effect of yoga on the physical body, but I also belief that there is the hidden, unseen part of yoga that affects the body. We all have heard about the Mind-Body connection and especially in alternative medicine this plays a big role. The mind – what we think and feel – affects the health and well-being of the body. My classes are designed to include a little talk on a topic before the class starts, yoga for the mind I like to think of it. I repeat many topics over and over – we need to hear something eight times before it sinks in!
My talks can lead the yogi who listens intently to discover themselves, it can open the mind and eyes to an unseen world where they start to realise I am not only what I eat, but also what I think. And as they learn to explore their minds and start to question certain patterns, aspects and ideas they hold, the body starts to follow slowly but surely. My teacher, Sri Durga used to say: “As above so below, as within so without, the body follows the mind.”
Normal Muscle Pain
Muscle pain after exercises is commonly known as DOMS and it said to be brought about by microdamage in our muscle fibres. Years ago it was thought to have been related to lactic acid but we now know that this is most likely not the case. Microdamage is caused when we contract our muscles and the total stress on the muscles is greater than its capacity. In other words, we make a movement and our muscles are not yet strong enough to support the movement fully. With the strain we get microtears in our fibres, causing small amounts of inflammation and other signs of damage. This is one side of the coin.
Feel Good vs. Feel Bad
The other side of the coin is that yoga changes our psychology, physiology as well as our mind. In the 8 years that I am teaching yoga, I have heard it many times from my yogis the week after a particularly challenging asana session: I was very stiff, couldn’t get out of bed, but it is was a good one! Or, I can feel it when I skip a week of yoga. For me this is an indication of a body and mind that has started to interact, work together and react on the input of yoga. As the mind is challenged in the class by the talks, sub-consciously people start to adjust, adapt and accommodate different ideas, views and thoughts, so the body starts to follow in its flexibility.
However, I have also heard it many times when a yogi complains about not feeling well after a yoga class, or they feel that after a period of great progress they suddenly stagnate of feel that their bodies don’t react well to the yoga. They complain about a general feel of soreness and stiffness and as a teacher I immediately look to myself and my teaching for doing something wrong. And in the beginning of teaching I thought I was doing something wrong.
But I soon realise we react to more than just yoga. The death of a parent or friend can affect our mind in such a way that we carry that sadness in our muscles. Or a job loss or change can place undue stress on a body which may cause it to read danger in the situation and react to the stress and the only way is the fight or flight response, which cause the mind to narrow its thinking and the body to tense, getting ready to respond to the “danger” in our lives. Children, marriage, money etc. elicit such emotional reactions from us that they unfortunately do affect the flexibility of the mind and the body. If we refuse to see our part in the problem, or if we feel powerless to change an unhappy union (or don’t want to change it) it all translates eventually to an inflexible body, stiff and inflamed muscles and a body that is less responsive as the mind gets more stuck in a rut.
Flip the Switch
The mind is located in all parts of the body. From the top of our head to tip of our little toe, the brain/mind pretty much runs the show. Science had found there are brain cells located everywhere in the body. So it begs the question: Can a stiff and inflexible body mean a stiff and inflexible mind? I think so. I think our bodies tell us all the time what is going on in the dark, back rooms of our mind. It may not be obvious, but here is an exercise you can do whenever you come up against some physical resistance that may also help you clear mental and emotional “stiffness” as well.
If you practice yoga, start doing some of your poses. If you don’t currently practice yoga, just slowly stretch your body in all directions. Move your limbs, your back, your neck, bend forward, backward and side to side. When you feel resistance, imagine that there is also a thought pattern or mindset that is rigid and unmoving. Breathe into that part of your body and see if some new insights come to your mind, as well. Spend a little time there just breathing and feeling the resistance melt away. Keep moving into other areas and breathing as you encounter resistance. You might even find that some emotions start to surface. Listen to your mind talk and see what it is saying. Are you talking to yourself nicely and in an encouraging way or are you being critical or telling yourself that you can’t do this? Use this as an opportunity to release negative mind chatter as well as your tight muscles.
As you open and free your muscles to a greater range of motion, imagine that your mind is also opening to new thoughts and ways of being. Expand your range of motion physically, psychically and mentally and watch your life open to new levels of insight and joy.
When we set aside all the modern perceptions we have attached to yoga such as it makes you more flexible, develops core, helps you to lose weight, calms you down and we strip back the images of yoga is associated with the East, incense, chanting and mystical gurus, we are left with a system that is truly amazing in making you astute, strong and incredibly tactile on a physical, mental and emotional level. Here is why:
YOGA IS A WORK OUT
Many people are surprised that they can build up a sweat during a yoga class. It is not the same as the one you develop during a gym session lifting weights and running on a treadmill, but it is an intense sweat that tells you have done something much deeper and profound to your body. Most yogis will tell you also that they don’t know how to explain this phenomenon, but despite the stiff and sore muscles two days later they overall feel amazing, alive and much more connected to themselves. They find inner strength in their practice and I have many yogis who would tell me that if they skip a week of yoga they can feel it, physically, mentally and emotionally. So what is happening?
SO, WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
Why has this 5,000 year old science suddenly become so popular?
Yoga does a lot more for the body than most people realize, it is not just about increasing flexibility or developing a calm mind. It is not necessary to sit in the crossed legged lotus position, chant OM, or be able to put your legs behind your head (but it does make for a very cool party trick!).
- develops strength and endurance,
- enhances your focus,
- improves your balance, and
- increases your performance in every aspect of your life
It works the whole body synergistically, working every joint, muscle and fibre improving all of your bodies functions.
Yoga is the best medicine for preventing injuries and aiding muscle recovery and repair. When the muscles and surrounding tissues are lengthened and relaxed during yoga asana it creates more room for blood to flow. And increased blood flow carries vital healing energies to those injured and inflamed parts of your body, thus accelerating healing.
This in turn attracts more oxygen to the area helping muscles to heal and grow, making them more effective for your next workout (and less sore in everyday life). As an added bonus yoga also helps to flush lactic acid from the system. The squeezing and releasing motions the yoga postures create invite the good stuff in and push the bad stuff out.
Practicing yoga also increases your range of motion (ROM) which is beneficial for all activities allowing you to swing further, reach higher, dip lower, step wider etc. With this increased ROM it is easy to see how you would be able to put more power and explosiveness behind your movements. With increase in muscle elasticity on top of this you are going to decrease you risk of injury tenfold.
BULK VERSUS TOTAL BODY CONSCIOUSNESS
Weight training and cardiovascular activity such as running tightens and shortens the muscles while yoga lengthens and builds functional strength. It teaches you how to use this strength effectively – look at an average yoga class, there are bodies of Vata, Pitta and Kapha, but they can all do more or less the same things you would throw at them during a standard yoga class. In a gym it is much more varied, some tiny body just can’t lift the same weights that a big bulky one can. But in a yoga class that same tiny body and that same bulky body will be able to do the same balance or stretch you throw at them. And this is what makes yoga so appealing and amazing, it is literally for every body!
What is the point of having all this strength if you can’t use it? The level of concentration needed to maintain balancing postures also gives you a great lesson in focus and the importance of having a calm mind.
WHY DOESN’T STATIC STRETCHING ACHIEVE THIS RESULT?
Yoga is different from other modes of stretching because it works on full muscle groups and not just isolated muscles, bringing all the little supporting muscles into the game as well. During your study of Anatomy, we have seen that many asanas can be used to help the neck, shoulder as well as the hip for example. A single asana can focus on 3 or 4 major muscles groups and work them as once. It is like opera, if you get 4 people to just speak, it will be chaotic, but is you add a tune and a piano for example they can sing that same dialogue in complete harmony to the ear. The same with yoga, the asana is the tune and adds the harmony needed by the body to make different muscles work together in great synchronicity.
Not only does yoga decrease the risk of injury it also can increase your muscle endurance and pain threshold. In yoga you learn correct breathing techniques that teach you how to have better control of your oxygen intake, monitoring the inhalations and exhalations allowing you to use the breath more efficiently as well as using it to move through pain.
Along with all the benefits you will gain physically it is also important to mention the mental clarity and focus gained from a regular yoga practise. Jumping on the mat allows you to draw the senses inwards for awhile and regain your composure and sense of self. It puts you back in touch with what is true for you and allows you to reassess where you are, and to start fresh every day.
It teaches you to work with what you have on that day because everyday the body has something different to offer and to teach. By coming more in touch with your body you are able to work with it, not against it. When you can hear what the body needs you are able to work together to go beyond your boundaries in a way you never considered before.
Personally for me one of the great benefits of yoga is that it teaches us to be present in the moment. I have done this many times in a class, I would ask my yogis to do an asana, usually a balancing one as it demonstrates this principle in yoga best, I would ask them to really concentrate, think, breath and then do it and hold the asana. The result is stunning everybody in the class is able to hold the balance in a steady manner for an extended time. I would bring them out, ask them to feel what they have done and then ask them to do the asana again. But this time as they start to hold the asana I would ask them to think about their day, problems at work or home and suddenly the whole class starts to fall apart! And this is the beauty of yoga, it teaches us that we can be in the moment, that it does help us to set our day and problems aside for a moment and that we can attain inner strength and tenacity from our practice.
So instead of asking me why you should be doing yoga perhaps I should ask you why you are not doing yoga. What have you got to lose?
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” ~Buddha
Many of us has programmed our lives with certain statements, ideas and thoughts, which we belief to be true and we repeat this process of affirming these statements, ideas and thoughts on a daily basis. Sometimes we repeat the same statement over and over to such an extend that we become that statement. The sad part of most these statements, ideas and thoughts are that they are repeated out of fear, ignorance and because we firmly belief that is who I AM.
My career life started out in 1994 as a 2nd language teacher and during my first year (I started teaching in the middle of the year) I inherited a class who was neglected by their previous teachers and who had a 0% pass rate in Afrikaans 2nd language. They all belief that they couldn’t spell and they didn’t want to learn Afrikaans (at that point SA changed from Apartheid government to the democratic elected ANC-led government) and would usually use statements such as “I don’t want to learn Afrikaans” or “I have never been able to spell” or “I don’t need languages, I am going to be a scientist” to convince me to give up on them.
Initially my work was less about teaching them Afrikaans than it was about teaching them that a change in their beliefs about themselves and changing their minds about their future will benefit them.
“I never want to hear you say you’re not good at Afrikaans in my class again,” I’d say. I’d ask them to switch to “I’m learning Afrikaans” or “I’m getting better at Afrikaans” or “I’m working on my spelling.”
So whenever they would employ negative self-talk I would draw their attention to that, stop the class and then transform it into positive statements. “I know it sounds freaky, but give it a chance,” I’d have to say. “Yes, I know it you don’t feel like changing your mind yet!” They’d roll their eyes and just laughed at me. Slowly but surely some of them started to change their minds, started to realise the impact of positive self-talk in their lives and some of them actually started to enjoy Afrikaans. Some of them employ it in their other subjects and they were less overwhelmed at the enormity of passing matric that year. By the end of that year and in the final exam nearly 60% of that class passed Afrikaans.
Keep Calm and Change Your Mind
Most of us repeat negative thinking patterns and self-defeating ideas, we sometimes nurture it, because that is all we know and we feel safe in them, even though we wish at the same time we could change it all. Well, there is a way out, it can change and that change starts with you changing your mind!
Let’s draw the class with language issue closer to our own lives. For a moment think of a statement that you hold to be true for you. Now, think carefully, where does that statement come from, who told you that it is true for you? And why do you keep nurturing that statement, even though you know it is not true for you, even though you know it makes you unhappy and want to change it.
If you read this blog, I am sure you know what is an affirmation. And this is the golden key to changing you mind and ultimately your life. Affirmations – I’m sure you’ve heard about them. An affirmation is, simply, positive self-talk, its a way of changing your mind. It’s a statement about ourselves or our situation, phrased in the present tense as if the statement is already true.
Affirmations are agents of change in our lives. I’d like to share with you 4 steps which I use to create mind changing affirmations:
- Identify your negative self-talk, thoughts, ideas and beliefs about yourself.
- Take those thoughts, ideas etc and create an affirmation for each one out of what you have written down.
- The next step is to carry those affirmations with you and use them, daily!
- And in time you’ll see the change you want to see in your life.
1. Step One: Identify those negative ideas and thoughts
I know you would want to type it on your PC or Tablet, but be old fashioned, sit down, think about them and write them down in a diary or journal. It is important that we physically connect our neurons with these ideas and thoughts on paper and at the same time we intuitively connect to them as well. What our bodies do, our subconscious learns from.
Fold a the page in your journal in half lengthwise, and then unfold it. On the lift side, write a list of those self-limiting statements you’ve been thinking and saying. “I can’t afford a new car.” Or “It’s hard to lose weight.” Or “I’ll never be successful in my career.”
Now, for a few days listen to yourself, write down the negative self-talk, thoughts and ideas as they arise, make note of the situation in which they have arise and why. Once you are sure you have exhausted that topic it is time for the next step.
2. Step Two: Create some affirmations out of those old beliefs.
This is the difficult step in this process. You need to create new statements for yourself, positive ones that can replace the old ones. Remember your fear of the unknown, your comfort zone will make it initially difficult to come up with new statements, but persist, it will come to you.
Down the right side of your paper, across from each left-side statement, write a new one that transforms that negative statement into a positive.
- “I can’t afford a new car” becomes “A new car is a real possibility for me.”
- “It’s hard to lose weight” becomes “Losing weight is easy for me.”
- “I’ll never be successful in my career” becomes “I’m good at my job and deserves success.”
The new statements must be in the present tense. Write “I am…” rather than “I will be…” or “I’m going to be…” Avoid using the word “try” because “I’m trying” is a self-perpetuating statement.
To get around your disbelief about writing something that feels untrue and seems impossible, you can write things like “I’m learning to….” and “I’m getting better at….” It’s still present tense, still a positive affirmation. Something like “I’m getting better at saving money” might feel better than “I’m good at saving money.”
3. Step 3: Begin using the new affirmation statements.
The next step is to make those affirmations part of your life and to start to belief them. As you repeat them over and over they will become the new tune according to which your life will unfold.
However, I have to warn you, changing years and years of programming isn’t easy, it take will, effort and determination to change your mind. And if you slip, don’t stay and wallow in the mud, pick yourself up and start by repeating those new affirmations again. If you catch yourself thinking or saying any of your old (negative) beliefs, stop yourself. Transform it into the positive, right then and there.
Ask your family and friends to help by simply pointing out any negative self-descriptions when you say them. When they do, transform the negative to the positive immediately, and say the new statement aloud to them.
You’re literally changing your mind.
4. Step 4: See the Change unfolding
Goethe said: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”
Changing your mind doesn’t happen over night. But starting to manifest a positive life with greater possibilities must be better than what we have. The power of this process is, as you change, those around you will see the change, and they will be influenced by that change. You become a powerful agent for change not only in your own life, but also in the lives of those around you. And that is an empowering thought I think.
It is important to guard against the trap that the offering of relaxation after a yoga class becomes just another form of hypnotism, because many of the relaxation techniques can so easily become just that. True relaxation will allow the body to assimilate the added flow of prana that was created during the asana practice and in doing so the body learns to find and seek a natural equilibrium and state of healing as the parasympathetic nervous system is activated.
Psychologically the relaxation is meant to guide the yogi to let go of any effort and identification with the physical body and emotions. As the asana (savasana or corpse pose) used for this relaxation suggests, it is also a dying of the physical body and a rebirth into a fresh innocence. So in essence the relaxation is a detachment from the body, from your aspirations, from your accomplishments, your possessions, plans and personal history, and in doing so one opens yourself to the great mystery in front of you, which is awareness or consciousness.
The relaxation at the end of a class is the psychosomatic release of all of who/that you think you are, a free fall into groundless ground, the pathless path, but coupled with clear alertness and being mindfully present. This becomes your foundation for the meditation that follows after the relaxation.
Mindfullness Meditation after the class
I teach Mindfulness Meditation, which has three very distinct behaviours or phases.
1. The first I call the arrival and centering. This implies being aware of your body, in other words selecting a comfortable position and posture for it to sit, choosing a room with certain vibrations, lighting a candle and incense. These are all the aspects I associate with this phase. Once you have arrived, you can move into the next phase, which is centering. In other words, commit yourself to what you are about to do, meditating, focussing your awareness on what you want to achieve and how you going to achieve it. During this phase you can recite a mantra or you can read an inspiring piece to facilitate this phase. I also like to watch the thoughts that come up in my mind and to tell my mind constantly that there is no need to worry about the thought it just brought up. Eventually the mind realsie that it can relax and stop its chattering by wanting to control everything. Once you have achieved peace you need, you can move to the next phase, which I call anchoring and labelling.
2. In the second phase of anchoring and labelling, we anchor the breath by mindfully practicing a few rounds of pranayama. It is a time to open to greater awareness that includes sensations, emotions and even states of mind. This practice creates a state of calm abiding or what the Buddhists call shamantha. When we rest our awareness on a single anchor without any expectation or outcome other than pure observance or awareness, it is considered the foundation for mindfulness meditation. Now you can employ techniques such as mantra, advanced pranayama, concentration and contemplation to further develop this awareness, which leads you to the final phase of accepting and letting go.
3. When you accept and let go, your meditation reach a point where you suspend any effort to edit or censure what is happening. To stay mindful, aware and conscious, you have to accept that which mindfulness finds and say “yes” to it every moment and this in turn imply that you are present in every moment without lapse. Eventually you will recognise meditation happening all the time, when washing the dishes or clothes or picking up after your children etc., becomes part of mindfulness meditation.
Om’s and blessings.