It seems like everyone is doing yoga right now, and there are probably just about as many ways to think about yoga practice as there are people doing it. I think it’s great that it’s become a big thing, and it has certainly had a major positive influence on my life. I’ve read a number of pieces on what is going on when you do yoga, and particularly like this one. The NY Times also just presented some reasons not to do yoga, which I thought was a little extreme. I don’t know much about the history or tradition of yoga, but I like doing it and I like thinking about it.
The first time I tried yoga was when I was in kindergarten. I don’t remember much about the year other than that. It was really fun, and my teacher was great. After that I didn’t touch it again until the end of high school, and I didn’t practice regularly until college. From there I took classes occasionally, and mostly did that when I could find a good deal or take it through school. About a year ago I started to listen to podcasts and practice in my room. Now I try to do this about three times a week, and it has been by far the most committed and enjoyable my yoga experience has been.
One of the most cited reasons to do yoga, and one of my biggest drivers, is the confluence of mind, body, and spirit. It’s great to have an activity that covers several different needs simultaneously. It loosens and limbers the body, calms the mind, and engages the spirit. I like the focus on energy and the mindfulness that comes along with it. I also like that it is not actually about the stretching. Going to the gym is a one-purpose activity. There’s not much you can do there beyond strengthening the body. With yoga, the strain on your body is a tool for actively strengthening your mind and expanding your spirit. Putting your body in a stressful position while keeping your mind calm and focused is practice for dealing with real-life stress.
Now that I’ve practiced a good deal on my own, I’ve found that I generally prefer that to a class. Maybe I’m just antisocial, but I like moving at my own pace and being able to focus on how my body and mind feel without the distraction of the people around me. I also like the repetition of doing pretty much the same movements over and over again. It makes it feel more like practice. I do occasionally miss the social atmostphere of a class and the variety and presence a live teacher brings, but usually I prefer to be alone.
And how do I actually feel when I do yoga? It’s hard to describe. The body leads the way for me, bringing my mind to a calmer state, and eventually generating a swell of warmth and contentment. I usually begin slightly stiff and tense from sitting at a desk and looking at a screen for most of the day. As I go through some gentle downward dogs and warrior poses, my muscles slowly start to give. Muscle fibers stretch, and strength and awareness begin to assert themselves in my body.
I find the physical discipline of keeping myself steady and at my edge is what initiates and grows my mental discipline. Through supporting my body’s effort to stay strong and steady, my mind releases its points of tension and pain, smoothes and steadies itself in the process. I find I’m more able to stay buoyant despite difficulties or sluggishness of the day. Some days I’m not able to get there, with my mind so crowded that I have trouble even staying focused through 20 minutes of yoga, let alone an hour and a half.
When I’m having a focused and strong session, though, my sense of body shifts slightly. As I go through more poses, I shed deeper layers of tension. My heels drop closer to the ground and my hips open a bit. I begin to be aware of subtler movement and tension in my joints and tissue. The warmth and energy from these sensations lay the foundation for the spiritual aspect of my practice. Rather than feel like I am straining a muscle, I feel like the muscle is engaging just to the minimum level of effort require to hold a pose steadily. Balance comes from exploring this boundary of effort. Shifting slowly from barely too much to barely too little in decreasing oscillations. Just at the limit, there is a feeling of engagement with one muscle, like the quad, and total relaxation of the opposing muscle, the hamstring.
This is where I begin to feel my breath. I try to maintain the “ugai” breath, but I’ve always had trouble aligning it to my movements. This is something I definitely want to keep working on, as I think it will bring fluidity to the practice. When I’m still, however, I use the breath to deepen a pose, release the tension in my brain, and to invite energy to flow throughout my body. I feel my lungs filling with air to their corners, expanding from my chest to where my body is tight or restricted. Energy draws from limbs, fingers, and toes, and eddies throughout my body. In prayer pose, there is a warmth between my hands which further calms my nervous system and deepens the spiritual aspect of the practice.
As I’ve gained body awareness over time, I’ve found that attention to certain details helps immensely. Slightly adjusting, or even just being aware of the angle and rotation of a bone or limb adds depth to a pose. Especially in the angle of the hipbone, the rotation of thigh bones, and articulation of the shoulders, I find that this can make a routine pose activate fully. Also, engaging a muscle while it’s being stretched and keeping a firm core throughout both build a warmth which spreads through the body. Gaining core strength through rock climbing has definitely improved my awareness and granted access to new levels of sensation and precision in these movements.
I’ve always been glad to have yoga with me through the various places my life has taken me, and I look forward to bringing it with me where I go from here. It is a solid, calming force, and I think it lays a good foundation for my emotional and intellectual well-being. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the opportunity to do yoga more often than I am now, but it’s definitely something I’m curious about. I think something like a month-long focused practice would help expand my consciousness and mindfulness in a big way.
How do you feel about yoga? I’d love to hear your stories and observations!