Thanks to the advertising industry, yoga has become synonymous with lithe young women and muscular men twisting themselves into all manner of awkward positions – all while maintaining an expression of self-satisfied inner calm, and flaunting their perfect midriffs in the latest branded outfits.
All of this couldn’t have less to do with the reality of yoga, a discipline of physical and mental resilience that can be practiced by anyone – regardless of age, figure or dress sense. If you’ve been turned off trying yoga because of a fear that it’s not for you, because your body doesn’t look or behave like the TV and magazine-cover yogis, it’s time to toss those ideas out.
Undoubtedly, physical fitness is one of the key benefits of practicing yoga postures (asana). However, there are much deeper benefits to be gained from a sustained and correct practice of asana: increased flexibilty, greater strength in the “core” (those muscles throughout the chest, back and abdomen that help maintain good posture), improved breathing patterns, enhanced digestion, and a calmer, more centred mind.
Every week I teach a class to people who have been diagnosed with, or are recovering from, cancer. Can they twist themselves into human pretzels? No. Do they walk out of each class feeling more calm, more in touch with themselves, more able to tackle their condition without succumbing to stress and fear? Wholeheartedly, yes.
A friend of mine does similar work with residents of nursing homes. Another colleague spends her winters teaching classes to physically and mentally challenged children in developing countries. In each of our classes, we focus on using yogic techniques to help people regain movement and improve their quality of life.
Here’s an exercise you can try right now, that might just improve yours. Bring your arms out horizontally in front of you, with your fingers outstretched and palms facing towards the ground. Exhale and bend the wrists, pointing the fingers toward the ground; then as you inhale, use the full length of the breath to slowly draw the hands all the way back and point the fingers towards the ceiling. As soon as you need to exhale allow the hands to curve back down and point the fingers to the ground again. Repeat this coordinated movement five to ten times, then when you’re done, lower the arms and observe the effects on your breathing and the sensations in the arms and body.
Though it may sound like a very simple practice, one of the hardest yoga classes I’ve ever done spent ninety minutes systematically working every joint of the body in this manner. We drew arcs and circles with our fingers, our wrists, our elbows, shoulders, toes, ankles, knees and hips. Everything was coordinated with the breath. All the time I focused my mind on how these very simple movements made my body feel.
The following day I had strange aches everywhere. Two days later I felt fantastic.
So, just to reiterate, it doesn’t matter that you can’t touch your toes or wriggle into those tight little yoga pants. Even if you’re stuck on the couch recovering from a broken leg you can still practice yoga. Try moving each of your joints as outlined above, and note how it makes you feel.
Tie this together with some good nose-belly breathing, and you’ll almost magically find yourself becoming more aware of your body and your breath. This is the key to learning the lost art of relaxation, which itself is the best way to discover who you really are.
Author Bio – This post continues our yoga series by guest blogger Helen Laird of Yoga in One Syllable. Helen is passionate about helping people see where yoga already exists in their lives and inspiring them to bring more yoga into it.