It’s nearly impossible these days to open a magazine, from Good Housekeeping to Runners World or GQ, without reading an article about the benefits of yoga. Yoga seems to be the new buzz word. The cure-all for everything from depression to tight hamstrings. But how does yoga heal? Why? What makes yoga different from other work-outs like pilates, dance, running and kick boxing?
The word yoga means union. The union of body, mind, and spirit. A full yoga practice seamlessly combines these 3 elements through movement, breath and meditation, bringing all 3 entities into a state of balance that supports physical, emotional and spiritual wellness. In order to understand the interplay of body, mind, and spirit, let’s look at each entity individually, investigating how they mobilize the individual’s potential for transformation and wholeness.
BODY. The physical practice.
No other exercise works the entire body like yoga. Forward bends, back bends, twists, balancing, standing postures, inverted postures. A full practice includes all of these physical elements, strengthening and stretching each major muscle group and bringing fluidity and movement to the joints of the body. Yoga also benefits the internal organs, physically squeezing out toxins and opening up the energy around the organs. Pranayama (breath control) increases lung capacity, teaching the student how to take a full breath, bringing more oxygen into the blood stream and more energy and health into the physical body. The awareness cultivated in a yoga class, works the body from the inside out. Not just using the outer body to hold the poses, but opening up new places inside the body with awareness and movement, encouraging you to break patterns of holding and tension. Yoga presents a physical repertoire that will keep you healthy and mobile for life.
MIND. The mental, emotional, and psychological benefits.
Breath and meditation combine on the yoga mat, by encouraging the mind to reside in the fullness of now, with complete acceptance of body, mind, and spirit. How does this intangible aspect of yoga work?
It is the nature of the mind to be scattered. To flit back and forth between the past and the future. Ruminating. Problem solving. Obsessing. Fantasizing. Remembering. Yoga offers two anchors for the mind in the present moment. The body and the breath. When you are present in a posture, noticing the details of the shoulder blades, the location of the tongue or the connection of your feet to the earth, you are grounded in the present moment in your body. When you are present in a posture, noticing the movement of the breath, you are grounded in the present moment, breathing in and breathing out. This practice of returning again and again to the present moment in body and breath, trains and stabilizes the mind, allowing you to step away from your mind chatter, your grocery list, the injustices of the past, or plans for the future. When you can stand in the middle of a situation and know that it “is”, without reacting, without labeling, you are sitting in your wholeness. Not denying the stress or agitation in your life, in your body, but accepting it without identifying with it. Practicing the yoga of attention.
The concept of presence is simple, but anyone who has sat on a meditation cushion or rolled out their yoga mat in the living room with the intention of relieving stress, and “being here now”, understands that it is a very challenging practice. One that requires patience, commitment and complete acceptance in order to jump out of the craziness of the world and jump into the stillness that lies beneath the surface, if only you can be quiet enough to listen.
SPIRIT. The unifying consciousness.
For many students, the spiritual benefits of yoga are the biggest surprise of all. Yoga isn’t a religion. Yoga doesn’t have a set of rules you have to follow or a set dogma. It’s a philosophy. It’s a framework. Practitioners from any spiritual tradition can do yoga. You just show up on the mat, with an open heart and an open mind, and it happens.
Once the physical body has been addressed through the asanas or postures, and the mind has been calmed by the breath and meditation, our spirit naturally connects with the universal consciousness. And whether we interpret that universal consciousness as Jesus, or Buddha or Mohammed or bliss or internal connection with all that is, it happens. And it feels great.
Our spiritual beliefs are as unique and diverse as the human race. Yoga removes all of the external barriers between us and allows us to connect with each other and the universe on a heart level. It allows us to forgive ourselves and others, inspiring us to be the best that we can be.
BODY, MIND, AND SPIRIT The full practice.
Because yoga integrates physical movement with mental control and breath, it integrates body and mind, the nervous system and the respiratory system. The brain and the heart. It helps the body find a sense of balance, or homeostasis, encouraging the student to accept the condition of their body, the condition of their life, instead of resenting it, moving from the stress response to the relaxation response, one breath at a time.
The Sufi mystic Rumi, speaks to this balance in the following poem.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If you were always a fist or always stretched open
You would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding
The two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as bird wings.
Balance. Coordination. Presence. The essence of yoga lies in the awareness of contraction and expansion. Move the body. Calm the mind. Reconnect with your spirit and begin the journey to wholeness. The healing path of yoga.