July 29, 2008

Yoga: An Inner Adventure

This is a guest post from Diane Cesa, yoga therapist, writer of The Everything Yoga Blog and sooo much more. For more about Diane, see her "Adventurous Woman" post.

If you’ve yet to have an experience with yoga (or perhaps you’ve had a bad one), you may think that yoga is all about wearing stylish yoga clothes, or bending yourself into pretzel-like positions, or sculpting a tight bum or ripped abs, or burning incense and chanting OM (typically in a cave high a top a mountain in some foreign land). There are a lot of off-base ideas about yoga out there. There’s also a commercialized version of this ancient practice out there as well. Unfortunately, all of this buzz about yoga has focused attention in the wrong place.

Yoga goes beyond the cool clothes, the lean bodies, the talk of vegetarianism and being eco-friendly, the label “hip, cool, and sexy,” and anything else that you might believe or have heard about yoga. Open your mind and welcome to the wonderful world of yoga…

What is Yoga?Often you’ll hear that the definition of yoga is union or to link or join. Those are correct but it’s not simply about joining to something else for the sake of union – it’s linking to something purposefully, intelligently. For example, if a person who starts practicing yoga is a smoker, overtime he/she may unlink from smoking and link to yoga. There is a joining to something positive, which then negates the need to join to the cigarettes.

If you go back to the definitive text on yoga – The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali – you’ll find that yoga is defined as concentration. It’s the ability to direct your mind in a chosen direction for a period of time. This is a reminder that the benefits of yoga go beyond the physical. A regular yoga practice can literally change your mind. We’ve all heard about the importance of being in the present moment and bringing awareness to your life. Yoga trains your mind to do this. It doesn’t stop all of your thoughts, it merely changes the quality of your mind. This is why people who practice yoga regularly report feelings of well-being, calm, and focus.

Unfortunately, the commercialization of yoga has changed the way people teach and practice. Some of the yoga you find out there today is a far cry from the yoga that was practiced in ancient India. Here are some myths that I commonly hear from folks in regards to yoga:

I have to be thin and flexible to practice yoga.My clients come in all shapes and sizes, in every age. There’s no one “type” of person that practices yoga. That’s the beauty of it – it’s universal. You don’t have to look a certain way, be flexible, wear special clothes, have a lot of money or fancy yoga gear, subscribe to a certain religion or follow a guru to practice yoga. All you need is an open mind and a willingness to be intimate with yourself.

Yoga is stress-relief.Yes, yoga can help reduce your stress. However, to classify yoga as only a stress-reducer is selling it short. Yoga is a holistic practice that involves your body, breath, mind, emotions, and your personality. All of these aspects are linked together so when one is changed, the others change as well. This is how yoga – when practiced as it was meant to be practiced – transforms a person. The truth is, stress-relief is only a small part of what a person who practices yoga regularly experiences.

Yoga is exercise.
Yoga is definitely not exercise. If you’re viewing your yoga practice as a workout, then you’re missing out on the subtler benefits of yoga – and shortchanging yourself. First of all, the goal of exercise is to accelerate your heart rate. In fact, the goals of exercise are often physical. The goal of yoga is to even out and lengthen the breath and to change the quality of the mind. Rather than release the sympathetic nervous system, yoga consciously supports the parasympathetic nervous system. While exercise is one-dimensional (exercise often works one part of your body) yoga is multi-dimensional and works you as a whole – your body, breath, and mind.

I don’t think I could keep up in class.I am trained in an old tradition that believes that the yoga is adapted to the individual rather than the individual must adapt to the yoga. That means that the practice goes entirely at your own pace (your movements match your breath) and the function of the pose is more valued than the form (in other words – it doesn’t matter how you look, but how you feel in the pose). The idea is not to force your body into postures to look like your teacher or the student on the mat next to you (this isn’t a game of monkey see, monkey do). The motto here isn’t “no pain, no gain.” It’s about tuning into yourself and your body and practicing in a way that feels right to you. Your breath is your barometer – if you’re holding your breath or you find that your breath is choppy, then you need to back off. That’s why yogis practice what’s called Ujjayi Breath (that’s the sounds-like-Darth-Vader breath) – because it makes the breath audible and brings your awareness to it.

How Yoga Brings Positive ChangeThoughts run through our heads 24/7, and it’s quite easy to get pulled out of the present moment and lost in the sea of thoughts (this is how you end up living your life on auto-pilot). Yoga gets you out of your head and into your body while at the same time focusing your mind. Movement to breath engages the mind – believe me, when you’re matching your movements to your breath you’re thinking about/focused solely on what you’re doing. That means that your mind is in the present moment rather than wallowing in the past or the future. You’re in the moment, in your body, and one with your breath. In this way, yoga is truly intimacy with self. Of course like anything else, you have to practice consistently to reap the benefits. It’s better to practice for 10 minutes every day than 60 or 90 minutes a few times a week.

For me regular practice is essential because it's easy to get lost in the static of the world or the static of my own thoughts. My yoga practice roots me in the present and gives me the space to discover and engage with myself. At the very least, it provides me with the perspective I need to know when I’m in the present or lost in thought. That awareness alone has changed my life.

What makes yoga a true adventure is that it takes you inside -- it's an inner adventure. Yes, it can affect your body in positive ways, but its true magic is that it goes deeper. And deep work like that can have profound changes on your life.

updated 1/11/2012

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