Once I was teaching and there were people arriving for a meeting in another room. As they arrived, I was teaching a relaxation at the end of my first class. When they left a couple of hours later, I was teaching relaxation again, at the end of my next class. Two men were heard commenting that ‘it’s all about lying down in there!’ Well, that was all they had seen, but of course there had been a lot more to it than that! Another time, I heard an elderly lady explaining to her friend that yoga was about learning to go to sleep!
People do have preconceived ideas about what yoga IS, even if they have never attended a class. They may be interested, or not interested, depending on what they believe it IS. There are many different reasons why people take up yoga – it may be to promote fitness or flexibility; it may be to aid in training for, or recovery from, another sport. It may be to help improve posture, and to relieve aches and pains. Others may come to yoga as an aid to relaxation, to relieve their stress. All excellent reasons for taking up yoga.
Increasingly, though, people are taking up yoga to improve their body image, as the press is rife with reports of various celebrities using their yoga practice to tone up and slim down. Another great reason to take up yoga. The many forms of yoga vary enormously, and some will veer towards the physically arduous, whilst other styles are softer and more flowing.
When we practise asanas, whether holding the posture or flowing in and out in a sequence, our muscles gradually stretch, strengthen and gain definition. It’s like a sculptor chipping away at a block of stone – the sculpture slowly emerges out of the mass of rock. When we work our muscles, they will improve in their appearance as well as in their function. Even if we can’t at first feel or see the difference, rest assured that just beneath the surface, the changes are on their way.
But the benefits of yoga are so much bigger than this, even if it’s toning and body sculpting that you’re after. The body becomes stronger, more toned, more flexible yes – but with yoga you can’t separate the physical benefits from the mental, emotional and spiritual effects. This is true to some extent of any exercise – I know that running, swimming, dancing, team sports and so on can have an exhilarating, stress-busting effect. In fact, just getting moving can be key to our mental as well as our physical health. However, with yoga we also learn to focus on the breath, to live in the moment, to meditate and relax. Yoga sculpts not just the body, but also the mind. When we practise pranayama, chanting or meditation, we start to cut through the clutter of the mind, to achieve a greater clarity in our thoughts, and to find the peace that is so often hidden by the endless chatter, the running commentary of our mind.
And we could go so far as to argue that this is what yoga IS – that yoga IS this growing ability to control and calm our thought patterns. Patanjali does just this, in the first sutra, where he says that :
‘To block the patterns of consciousness is yoga’
~’Four Chapters on Freedom’ (1976) by Swami Satyananda Saraswati
It’s not easy, and there will be times when our mind spins off in all directions – remembering and re-running scenarios in our mind, getting ahead of ourselves with future imaginings, worrying about things out of all proportion. It’s like a broken record, going on and on and on. But with practice, it gets easier, just as the physical asanas become easier too. If we are kind to ourselves when it all goes wrong, those times when we are not present and are swamped in our imaginings, we will gently bring ourselves back to a state of presence, of noticing where we are right now.