Updated: Feb 24
Like many of you out there, I have enjoyed varied sports and exercise regimes throughout my life. As a kid I did ballet, then moved onto Judo and rock climbing, field hockey, then contemporary dance. As an adult I went back to ballet, running, rock climbing, kick boxing, circuit training, dragon boat racing, weight lifting, and now, kundalini yoga.
The once constant for the past eight years though, has always been yoga. I've cycled through a few styles along the way:
-Hatha (good for beginners, involves holding asanas for short time periods)
-Vinyasa (flow yoga, where the sequencing and the moving with the breath is key)
-Bikram (hot yoga, practiced in heated rooms to generate a sweat)
-Ashtanga (power yoga, built into strict sequences.)
-Yin (targets the deep tissues in the body with stretches held for long periods)
-Iyengar (uses varied props to help correct body structural alignment)
-Kundalini (the yoga of consciousness, focuses upon energy and the inner experience)
Since I started practicing, yoga has given me a way to connect to my body, when much of my work and play pursuits have been more cerebral in nature. When my mind has been full of thoughts that have created stress, yoga has been a way to turn my attention away from the mind and into the body. Anyone who exercises regularly will know that this can be just the circuit breaker you need, to feel grounded and more at ease. With regular practice, I've formed a more holistic and nuanced body awareness.
In each asana or posture, there are muscles that need to be relaxed and others that need to be activated. The growing understanding of this has meant that the muscular awareness stays with me off the mat, meaning I notice when my posture is poor, or if a particular muscle is unhappy or tense. The other wider result of this is a greater awareness of which situations in life require my action, or a push forward, and which require me to step back or let go. On the mat, just as in life, we have to understand what we have the power to do, where our personal power resides, and where we are powerless.Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. This is just one example of how the lessons of the body, are also the lessons of the mind.
Another reason I return to yoga is the power of the knowledge of pranayama, or the art of breathing properly. It strikes me that of all of the solutions we reach for when we feel terrible, this is perhaps one of the last ones we consider and yet it's the most obvious, most effective and cheapest! Consider how important breath is to life. We can go for days without water or food, but even minutes without the breath is extremely damaging. When we are stressed, our breath is shallow and fast paced. If we can work to slow and deepen the breath, it is the first step towards a sense of calm. I have also attended workshops on breath work techniques that can be used to release trauma, and to help you to achieve very deep stillness and clarity of mind. The breath is a wonderful anchor or focus during meditation, removing you from the minds' incessant chatter. Buddhists call it the monkey mind, because we give it so much attention that we often wholly identify with it. But we are not are minds.
Yoga has taught me that I don't need to push myself to the point of injury or exhaustion to be fit and well. I understand that my body has different skills and limitations than other people. That is due to many factors, such as my skeletal structure, my height and weight, my bmi, my history of injury, what point I'm at in my menstrual cycle, whether I've slept or ate well, the stress I am under on any given day, the temperature of the room and so on. There is an acceptance with where my body is at on any given day and an awareness that no two days are the same. In my classes, I encourage people to close their eyes while practicing. This is because the experience is an internal one, and the greater 'knowing' comes from inside, as opposed to looking at what everyone else is doing and worrying about whether they are bendier than me or not.
The final part I'd like to talk about today is the concept of union. Yoga is really a philosophy and lifestyle, rather than some exercise performed on a mat. In the west, I feel that this aspect of the practice has been lost along the way, yet this is the true essence of the practice. The Sanskrit word is 'Yuj' and it means to join. What are we joining? It is more a remembering, that we are all part of a Universal Consciousness, and thus seeing yourself in the other. This leads to a growing compassion, lessening judgment of others and a sense of connection to something beyond the mundane. Something bigger, spiritual, a sense of the divine. Spirituality isn't all that fashionable in the U.K today, and I think abuses in the name of religion have a large part in that- the turning away from the idea of anything bigger than ourselves. For me, it's a relief to know that there is something beyond little old me, and I don't need to try to control everything as a result. These are just some of the reasons why yoga is my eternal return.