Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bringing Mindfulness to Yoga

"Yoga, a Sanskrit (language of the Hindu religion) word meaning "to yoke" or "to unite" is an ancient practice that originated in India thousands of years ago. Ancient Yogis believed that in order to live in harmony the body, mind and spirit had to be "united" and balanced. They developed a way to achieve and maintain this balance through exercise, breathing and meditation.

Yoga is actually composed of eight limbs, all of which are given equal importance and value in the traditional yoga path to fulfillment and enlightenment. (Click here for more on the eight limbs of yoga.)

In the west, however, we are most familiar with the physical practice of Hatha Yoga. By aligning the spine and stacking the vertebrae we can safely begin to move the body in a variety of flowing movements called asanas. (Sanskrit word for "seat" since originally, the asanas were intended to help practitioners stabilize the body in a seated position for prolonged periods of meditation. ). Most Practitioners of Hatha Yoga understand that yoga helps improve mobility in the joints as well as increase flexibility and strength in the muscles and connective tissues. Less understood, however is that yoga can have a profound effect on our internal systems by massaging organs and eliminating toxins from our digestive, lymphatic, cardiovascular, and pulmonary systems. A well-rounded practice will include twists, foreword bends, back bands and inversions, and this can help bring the nervous and endocrine systems into balance. By increasing blood flow, oxygenated nourishment is delivered to every cell in the body.

What distinguishes yoga from other activities or practices is the mindful awareness on the breath and integration of the movement of the body with the breath. The Yogis developed breathing techniques based on the concept that breath is the life force or pranayama that flows within the body and it is the pranayama that helps us achieve balance between mind, body and spirit. For more on breathing click here.

At the end of a practice, most people say they feel more mobile, less achy, calmer, more peaceful, and less stressed. Why?

Most of us experience stress because we obsess about something that has already happened or we worry about something that might happen. By bringing mindfulness to our practice, we learn to focus on the present moment. We learn to use the breath to help us find the balance between pushing and yielding into a pose. We learn to listen and respond to the subtle and not so subtle messages of our bodies by tuning in to the feelings, sounds, sensations, and, yes, aches and pains that guide us through our practice.

When there is conflict between the mind and the body (the body is in one place, but the mind in another), the body and the mind will experience this as an obstruction or constriction in the natural flow of energy that should flow freely through the body. There is no limit to the creatively unhealthy ways our bodies will find to express these obstructions, including areas of tightness, backaches, neck and shoulder pain, headaches or migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, hypertension, or just an overall feeling of stiffness and discomfort. When our minds suffer from this restricted flow of healthy energy we experience the pain on an emotional and psychological level as stress, depression, anxiety, panic,or an overall sense of emotional discomfort.

The process of yoga is intended to help us open these areas of obstruction, allowing for the energy to flow freely and restore our bodies and minds to a natural state of equilibrium. In order to help us find this place of equilibrium, we must turn inward as we practice our yoga, leave our egos, expectations, judgments and comparisons off the mat, and move our bodies from within, letting the breath guide and connect us to our mind, body and spirit.

I am absolutely convinced that yoga will improve your physical and mental well-being and that nearly every body of any age can benefit from yoga. (If you have special medical conditions you should always consult your physician before starting any practice). There is a common misperception that you need to be flexible to practice yoga. This is not true and how flexible or how strong you are is not important. What is important is bringing mindfulness to your practice and recognizing that yoga is just another part of your journey of exploration and finding healthier ways of moving, breathing and being. Everyone just starts wherever there bodies are on a particular day. Each practice is unique as is your body at any given moment in any given day. It is frequently said that the most advanced yogis are not those who can twist their legs into a pretzel while standing on their heads, but rather those who come to their mats with a beginner’s mind. It is important to allow yourself to tune into what your body is experiencing at any given moment of your practice and bring your breath and awareness to each and every movement. If you start from a place of an open awareness of your body, breath, mind and spirit, and stay with a consistent practice, you cannot help but be rewarded with a healthier body and healthier mind.

This then, is the journey of yoga. We learn to stay mindful of our bodies and minds while on the mat. We then learn to take our practice into the world to help find harmony off the mat so we can live our yoga and our lives breath-to-breath, moment-to-moment and day-by-day. We learn to optimize our physical and emotional health by reconciling the conflicts between mind, body and spirit.

The trick is to make the commitment and start. It is always a good idea to start with a class and a trained instructor, but if that is not practical for some reason, there are lots of resources available on the web, or at your local library or bookstore. Try to practice at least 3 times a week. It doesn’t have to be a long practice and you can alternate between yang yoga and yin yoga (more about this in an upcoming post.) Just like mediation, or mindful breathing, it’s important to practice when you are feeling strong not just when stress and anxiety are hijacking your every thought and heart beat. If you can teach yourself to find physical and emotional relief when the going is good, it will help guide you through a successful practice when the going gets tough.

Look for yoga videos in upcoming posts.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Donna. I particularly liked this one, and am interested in learning about the difference between yin yoga and yang yoga. I have signed up.