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.
In the West yoga has been marketed as a system with many benefits, so I am not going to go into it in depth. We all know how yoga can enhance your mood, calm the nervous system and focus our attention, however, most of us also know that these benefits don’t last as long as we want them to last. Sometimes, moments after leaving a class the world will challenge you with a bombastic road user or a crisis at home. We are confronted with the same issues, problems and challenges once we leave a class, which leaves us frustrated and to an extent exhausted. It seems the more we want peace and harmony, the more the world would through the opposite to us. On your yoga mat and meditation cushion, yes we can taste the POTENTIAL for growth, we feel the peace and love and light and harmony, yet off the mat we encounter greater resistance. But how can we affect a more lasting change then?
I would frequently sit before a class and just talk to my yogis and if you listen carefully most of the time they complain about tension, stiffness or even pain in the hip area and sometimes they would refer to their chests and how tight it may be after a cold or flu. The hips and heart seem to be receptacles for frustration. “My hips are so tight!” people say, or “How do I open my chest—no matter how hard I try, it doesn’t seem to respond!” This is because much of our emotional issues are concentrated in the hips and heart. It seems to me the heart, chest and hips are receptacles for our painful memories, hurtful emotions and unresolved issues. But on the other hand they are also the founts from which creativity flow, so we express a need to open the heart and hips in order to open ourselves to connect more deeply with our bodies and innate creativity. And in this connection lies the solution to our sometimes very complex emotional states. This is the gift of yoga to you, greater awareness unravels the emotional issues, yes difficult at first, but transformational as we grow and continue of our yoga path.
THE ISSUES ARE IN OUR TISSUES
Yoga doesn’t rid us of our anxieties, our fears, our sorrows or our stress: it just creates awareness that we have these fears, anxieties, sorrows and stresses and if we stay long enough on the yoga path, we start to understand why we harbour these emotions, I call it: awareness that the issues are in our tissues. From a purely Western point of view, it may not make sense that we store our “issues in our tissues” for that Western medicine has alienated us from our bodies and why we have certain diseases and illnesses. However, from a spiritual point of view, it starts to make sense that our mind, body and emotions are inextricably linked. We are much more what we think rather than what we eat! However, we are always surprised when yet another issue arises just as we think we have now worked through it all. My yoga teacher, Sri Durga, used to call it stirring the coffee grounds. There is always something more, yoga seems to penetrate our membranes of defences to reach the deepest, most primitive layers of experience. So the practice of Yoga can feel like opening Pandora’s Box: a primal storehouse of memories, emotions and experiences awaits us. The problem is that this storehouse of memories, emotions etc. seem to evade us most of our life until we start to practice something like yoga which brings us within reach of the subconscious mind. And this is the power of yoga, it transforms us, yoga forces us to live in the present, to focus on what is now in front of us and to being mindful of the here and now.
Once our yoga practice starts to be more than just another set of exercise and we connect deeply with ourselves, our body, emotions and mind, in other words when the transformation starts, we are confronted with unexpected consequences. We seek peace, but yoga brings anger and disharmony, we see happiness, but yoga brings sorrow and sadness or we seek love and yoga brings us rage and anger! We all respond differently to what yoga throw our way, I have noticed two kinds of responses:
- The nervous system sounds the alarm and moves us into a fight or flight lockdown.
- Or, the emotional energy that comes surging forth from our depths creates a state of denial or cognitive disassociation.
Whatever option we choose, each one forces us in a different way to look at ourselves and to start to acknowledge that we are on a path of change, of self-healing and making peace with the story of our lives.
Every life on this planet is worth a book! We all have a story to tell and in that story there are different chapters, actors and scenes. We constantly move in and out between the different stories and scripts. Some is simple stories: my grandmother died when I was 10 years old – this is what this sadness is about. Or more complex: my partner is abusive, cold and emotionally distant, he/she isn’t taking care of me – why I feel such anger and frustration. Or another scenario might be: look how my teacher is assisting that person over there; I’m clearly not one of his/her favourite students – reason for my resentment and jealousy. Our story usually fits our mental and emotional patterns (or samskaras). And this is the amazing aspect of yoga, it creates awareness of the patterns and the reasons why we repeat these patterns so that we can mindfully start to change our mind and say: I am not my father or I am not this pattern I am repeating, I am not this anger, this rage, this jealousy or depression. Once we cognitively start to recognise and realise that we are just repeating old samskaras, then the healing, the transformation can start to happen.
We have this amazing power within us, the power to change our story. Change is the only constant we can be sure of, so instead of fighting change, why not accepting it lovingly into your life and see how different your life might become!
Unfortunately affecting this change in our lives doesn’t come easy, the Ego will try to dissuade you from change, from transformation, it will always try to navigate back to the old familiar patterns and this is the challenge: to change before the pattern become too deeply ingrained. Our mind has specific way to cope with the different stories in life, it likes to run away with a story, give it so many add-ons that we later become confused and in this chaos of confusion we start to repeat old patterns, fear, anxiety, anger, resentment etc. reach into the depths of our consciousness and takes residence there. The danger is that later we cannot remember what the original issue was! This coping mechanism of our mind and Ego lure us away from the original and deep emotion that needs our attention. In this way, it reinforces the very patterns that clearly contribute to our suffering. And it short-circuits the opportunity the story gives us: to go inward and root out the long-standing samskaras that cause us suffering.
This might sound like a cliché, but there is great truth in the statement of my life partner: “Let’s not confuse the issues here!” Whenever we have a difference we need to sort out and I would bring in too many other issues, he would call a time-out moment and remind me of this. It is hard not to bring in other narratives and even harder to focus all our attention on this one story in the here and now. It is human nature it seems to reach to the depths of our minds and to pull out old stories and trying to connect them to what is happening in the here and now. Staying present, being mindful of the moment are tools that can assist us on our path, it can help us to handle our stories better, resolving them quicker, reaching an understanding of the why and how on a deeper level of our being. So yoga is about inhabiting our bodies in a deep way and teaching us to be mindful.
HOW YOGA HELPS
I have written about this, but I am going to repeat it here again: I have this little experiment I do in my yoga classes to illustrate certain truths – I would ask my yogis do to a simple Tree Pose, focusing all their attention on that pose for that moment. Amazingly, when we breathe deeply, focus our attention and will, we can all do a well balanced Tree Pose. I would bring them out of the pose, ask them to feel what they have done and then I would do the other side. Once they are in the pose I would ask them to think about their day, their problems, work, money problems etc. and like clockwork they would all lose the balance and focus. Yoga helps us to sort the issues, by forcing us to be in the moment, focus on what is at hand and to do that well. In that way yoga transforms us, makes us more focused, looking at the issues one by one and transform each one over time.
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?
Aside Posted on Updated on
Yoga is a wonderful system of both physical (asanas) as well as spiritual (different yogas such as bhakti etc.) practices that can assist any person, young or old, over weight or just right, long or short to add flexibility, strength and a general feeling of well-being, peace and clam to your body.
Yoga is also suitable for people who suffer from sciatica, lower back pain, various stress related problems such as depression and anxiety, high blood pressure (if under control) and diabetes to help them to better control these afflictions.
So if you want to help yourself with the greatest gift ever, live in Pretoria, South Africa and want to challenge yourself a little bit, here is my details. It is never too late to start yoga.
For costs, venue, times and days, please see the side bar on your right for more details.