Over the past few years yoga has become the mystical ‘cure all’ for many people. It is not uncommon to hear one discuss their own physical and/or mental particulars and have a friend or family member ask if they have tried yoga in a effort to help them ease their pain or medications. This phenomena has gone so far as to warrant a meme from some of my friends with chronic illnesses requesting, “when I talk about my illness please do not recommend yoga”. However all discussion aside it is not all that far off of a suggestion. Myself included, many have taken to yoga and noticed a drastic increase in their health and well being, while also reaping benefits of better connections to loved ones and productivity at work.
Still when discussing many of these benefits, those whom have not found yoga particularly healing have listed multiple reasons as to why when they tried it, something did not click. For starters I have noticed a growing number of people when starting their practice doing so more under the guise of yoga, rather than the practice itself. Some relaying on videos, pdfs, books, and the like unwilling or unable to find classes they are willing to spend money on. Others have gone to classes hosted by gyms and other intuitions focused on the physical part of the practice often leaving out the more important benefits of meditation, mindfulness, breath work and much more. Finally I have heard of others partaking in only a few classes, seeing no results and deciding that in the end the practice was not worth all the buzz.
Here is what I want to focus on today. Yoga, with all of the buzz and love given to it today, is not a quick fix. Yoga is a practice that takes constant and continual dedication, discipline, and work. Yoga has plenty of benefits that research has backed up over the years, healthier lifestyle choices, fewer mood swings, lessening depression and anxiety, healthier body and mind, the list goes on and on. However in order to gain the healing benefits and constant help that yoga can bring to chronic illnesses, both mental and physical, one must be dedicated and rooted in a deepening practice. It does not happen over night or stay once you stop practicing.
If we want to look at the benefits of yoga we first have to decide what will be included in the practice. I have already mentioned the three key things that I find both beneficial as well as universal; mindfulness, meditation, and breath work (these in addition to an understood physical practice). There are also many other practices within yoga that offer more benefits, and if we are to look at the traditional rout we need to revisit the 8 limbs of yoga set down my Patanjali in his ‘Yoga Sutras’. They are as follows
Yamas – or one’s standards for themselves within the world
Ahimsa: nonviolence in thought, word, or deed
Brachmacharya: Restriction (or only taking what you need)
Niyamas – or one’s own standards for themselves
Tapas: heat and motivation
Svadhyaya: study of sacred scriptures and one’s self
Isvara Pranidhana: Surrender
Asana – or physical practice
Pranayama – Breathwork
Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses
Dharana – concentration
Dhyana – meditation or contemplation
Samadhi – oneness
Within the 8 Limbs of Yoga we see that physical practice is such a little aspect of the full potency of yoga, and through only the physical practice little can fully be obtained. However if within our physical practice we add in the ideas of concentration, meditation, and breathwork, we can begin to unlock further into the benefits. (I restricted this article to these three, mostly because I do find them universal and less combative towards those looking to just ‘get the benefits without the spiritual mumbo-jumbo’.)
Now that we have an idea of what could be lacking in a yoga practice, let’s focus on how using these tools and having a dedication to the practice makes a difference when looking at our over all mental and physical health.
Starting with Mindfulness, I want to introduce a man by the name of Jon Kabat-Zinn. Over 35 years ago he started a program melding mindfulness meditation and therapy to combat depression and anxiety. What he found was that after constant daily practice of 30 min sessions a day, his patients not only felt the weight of depression and anxiety lift; but also found that they were less likely to ‘relapse’ into having extreme episodes again years later (as long as they continued to practice). As mindfulness comes more and more to the forefront of the buzz on alternative health, more and more studies are coming up to ‘prove’ his finding; or more accurately to add to them.
Secondly, looking at breathwork, the idea is that energy, prana, is carried in and out of the body through breath. By practicing different styles and techniques of pranayama there are not only physical benefits, but also an uptake in energy input and out put. Essentially along with the physical benefits we are adding new clean energy, and expelling old dirty energy at an accelerated rate, helping us to heal faster and stronger. Further practices such as Alternative Nostril Breathing, and Skull Shinning Breath, calm the nervous system as well as clean out the lymph, work out the diaphragm, and much more. By taking care of these internal systems we are furthering our work in cleaning and ridding the body of toxins stored in these systems causing illness and wonky moods.
Finally coming to meditation. There is little that has not been said regarding this practice. Meditation has a wonderful ability to help heal by giving one a chance to ‘witness’ themselves. Time away from the busy day to just ‘turn off’ and be within themselves. There is no right or wrong way to meditate. One can not fail at meditation, they can only fail to practice. With this removal of judgments, and an opportunity to sit in a peaceful existence, it is easy to see how this ‘break’ can help clear out the clutter of the mind and help remove stress causing relapses in the mind and body.
Now bringing these into a physical practice is the key to finding the healing benefits of yoga. Within a physical practice usually – special conditions aside – teachers encourage the use of the Ujjayi breath, or the inhale and exhale through the nose with a slight sound. Melting this breath with certain movements that work with the body allow a rhythm to emerge that helps the breathwork cleanse the body. Within the practice focusing not on what the pose looks like, but how it feels, helps to bring a mindfulness into the practice. Really stepping into the sensation of the foot on the mat, or the air going in and out of the nostrils helps a student ground in the present moment. Finally, adding meditation, bringing the mind back when it wanders by gently coming back to the breath. When in practice and finding yourself thinking of what errands need to happen next, or if you want to have lunch out or go home to cook; just stop and breath. Focusing on that breath brings a meditation to the practice and helps the student find their own peace on the matt.
The key though is to practice every day. To know that this is a permanent solution, but not a quick fix. Yoga will not bring light and peace in the first session – although it has happened -; but it will help you find the root of all your aliments, and over time heal them. Yoga is not always blissed out happiness. Yoga can be painful. Yoga can be angry. Yoga can scream and cry to the moon asking why? But at the end of it all, there is an answer, there is healing, there is hope. Yoga will bring you face to face with your demons and demand that you face them; and when you do they will be gone forever.
To paraphrase a popular movie, we have layers like onions. If we begin a yoga practice and only peel away one, then there are still a slew of them underneath. It is important that we continue to practice and deepen ourselves and our practice so that eventually we can get to our core, heal, and rebuild.
Practice in Peace and Love ❤