The cultural and social uptake of yoga is evident around the globe, with many people including adults, children and teenagers advocating its benefits within diverse settings such as schools, gyms, at home, at work, in yoga studios, holiday retreats and more.
Many researchers in medical and health sciences around the world have published and helped facilitate a deeper understanding of why and how yoga and meditation practices lead to various health benefits. A recent documentary film ‘The Connection: Mind your body’, is a wonderful example of this collection of evidence and understanding. The film is directed by a journalist named Shannon Harvey, who, after suffering for many years, wheel-chair bound, with a debilitating auto-immune disease, was able to find ways to heal herself that didn’t involve taking drugs or medicine. This process called for her to look deeply at the relationship between her body and mind, her beliefs, every-day perceptions, lifestyle factors and understanding the remarkable link between the mind, body and health. The film highlights many inspiring stories of people recovering from illnesses like cancer, heart disease, infertility, chronic pain and MS, showing there is evidenced-based proof that you can change your mind to change your health.
Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises help us learn how to modulate the physiological arousal response, for example when stressed and/or anxious, while the increased production of dopamine in the brain moderated by physical movement can alleviate depression, improve memory, energy levels and feelings of contentment. Additionally, when we apply mindfulness to our movement, when we pay attention to our breath, we can cultivate a sense of integration between our mind and body, and it becomes a wonderful opportunity to develop insight into the physical counterparts of our emotions, the relationship we have with our body, and the ways we tend to respond to sensations like pain or pleasure. So, rather than our yoga mats being a place to ‘escape from reality’, suppress emotion or avoid emotional pain or ‘stroke our ego’ by straining or pushing ourselves into the ‘perfect pose’ – we instead allow ourselves to create space for bringing a deliberate moment-to-moment attention to our movement, breath and activity of the mind, and in essence yoga becomes a moving meditation.
“S/he who looks outside dreams, S/he who looks inside, awakens”
~ Carl Jung
What is yoga?
The beginnings of yoga in the Indian tradition date back to as early as 2500 BCE, and can be described as a group of physical, mental and spiritual practices or disciplines. Today, yoga is popularly depicted and understood by many as a movement-based practice, and it is not uncommon to see real-life and/or representational images of individuals and groups performing a series of movements ranging from relatively conservative to all kinds of magnificent, almost illusive looking shapes and movements. Some might even argue that this ‘modern day’ interpretation of yoga has strayed far from the nature and origins rooted in ancient Indian practices. However, one thing is very clear and that is we are not alone in this wonderful struggle for truth.
The word yoga comes from the word ‘Yuj’ meaning to yoke, bind or unite. So, in a nutshell, yoga is the practice of unification of the body, mind and spirit in which the ultimate goal of any yoga practice is to attain moksha, meaning liberation or freedom. This might translate to a heightened awareness and understanding of our mind’s projections, expectations, and/or self-defeating habits such as addictive or harmful ways of relating to self, others and/or our environment. Hence, authentic yoga practice ultimately helps us to disentangle from whatever blocks or stops us from being free or congruent in our lives. With this understanding and awareness, one might soon come to realise that there is more to authentic yoga than the ‘perfect pose’.
Indeed it is truly inspiring to see what we can learn to do with our bodies, and perhaps even more so if we repeat it “every damn day” as the Instagram tag suggests…although, a couple of questions worth asking ourselves are… What kind of attitude do I bring to my yoga practice, and if I do it this way ‘every damn day’, does this ultimately help me to live a genuinely harmonious, happy, and fulfilled life long-term? If the answer is ‘not sure’, ‘no’ or ‘probably not’, that is OKAY. At least we now know where we are truly at, and had the courage to ask ourselves that question! Challenging situations are an opportunity for growth and new learning.
“Happy is the wo/man who knows how to distinguish the real from the unreal, the eternal from the transient and the good from the pleasant by their discrimination and wisdom.”
~ B.K.S Iyengar
When we actively practice kindness, genuine understanding and compassion towards others, this is an aspect of yoga. When we practice introspection or reflecting on our own thoughts, feelings and actions, this is an aspect of yoga. When we bring an awareness to how we use and treat our own body, this is an aspect of yoga. When we bring ourselves onto our matts and practice the postures with awareness, this is also an aspect of yoga. So, in essence, yoga is “skill in all of our actions” (yoga karmasu kausalam), and as Sri K. Pattabhi Jois aptly described:
“Yoga, as a way of life and a philosophy can be practiced by anyone with inclination to undertake it, for yoga belongs to humanity as a whole. It is not the property of any one group or any one individual, but can be followed by any and all, in any corner of the globe, regardless of class, creed or religion.”
~ Sri K. Pattabhi Jois