There are a number of misconceptions on what yoga is and what it isn’t, but one of the most common misconceptions might the description of yoga as a physical practice done to increase balance, strength and flexibility. Although these are all benefits of the practice, the true objective of yoga is to cultivate a quiet and calm mind.
Unfortunately, in today’s world there has never been such a constant attack on our attention. We go about our days taking in information from the media on what we should buy, how we should act, and how we should live. We follow our friends, social media influencers, political leaders, and celebrities so we are kept informed on how we should feel. We are not only expected to know more and take on more day-to-day, but we are being forced to split our attention and energy on multiple sources at one time. Even when we’re having a conversation, we are almost always interrupted by text messages, phone calls, or app notifications ensuring that we are up to date. With so many outlets monopolizing our time with information and opinions, we sometimes forget to think and feel for ourselves. We run from one thing to the next, never giving ourselves enough time to simply take it in and be present.
The practice of yoga allows us to slow down and move into our physical bodies, listen to how we feel, and then use the breath to release unnecessary tension. On every inhale we go inside and bring awareness to the body and to where we are holding tension. And then as we exhale, we soften that tension, letting it go more and more with each exhale. The breath creates an opportunity for a conversation with the body. On the inhales, we seek to explore our edge: where we can physically reach, bend or balance to our max. And on the exhales, we listen to the body and decide whether to continue seeking, or maybe ease off.
The yoga postures are not meant to be easy. By exploring and pushing to our edge, the postures tend to create a false stress on the nervous system. When you get to your edge, the yoga practice begins to trigger similar neurological responses to what you would feel in a stressful life situation. But instead of running away or avoiding the situation all together, you can train the nervous system (and mind) to be calm and steady.
It’s not always easy. As we stress our bodies, the mind starts to get in the way of the practice. The mind starts to wonder as we think, “I’m uncomfortable, I’ll never get to that peek pose, why are the others more flexible than I am?” By nature, our minds wander in and out of thought. Research indicates that the mind may actually wander up to 60% of the time.
The unique thing about yoga is that it tends to assist us in noticing our unconscious thoughts and whether they are positive or negative (daydreams or negative self-talk). The practice encourages awareness of the breath and body, so as other thoughts creep in to our minds, we are eventually reminded to bring our attention back to the practice. When we practice this over and over again, the idea is that we can start to notice these thoughts. We start to catch what we have been unconsciously contemplating. Usually these unconscious thoughts are reoccurring day after day and potentially hour after hour. Unfortunately, many unconscious thoughts carry negative weight and identify as: “I’m not good enough, I’ll never get there, I’m not worthy of [fill in the blank], etc.”
For the most part, negative self talk is typically derived from a story we’ve built about ourselves based on society and mainstream media. But our thoughts are very important because they are subliminal triggers that actually end up determining our day to day decisions.
By maintaining a yoga practice, we eventually become aware of these unconscious thoughts as we move, and after time, we learn to recognize these thoughts off the mat and in everyday life. As unconscious thoughts become conscious, we start to ask ourselves, “Why am I feeling this way?” From here, we can choose to take our power back and potentially over time, dissolve the thoughts all together.
Yoga is much more than a physical practice. It is a self study, an experience of self acceptance, and a way of life.
By Erica Matechuk – RYT 200