So this statement - or those very similar in nature - is one I hear on a regular basis and it's something I really want to address...
There are two main aspects that need considering: firstly, can we separate the physical asanas from other aspects of yoga practice and secondly, should we?
Many people start yoga in order to counterbalance their stressful lives and are introduced to yoga in classes where the physical aspect - asanas - are prioritised. After 45 of minutes of sequenced movements, the teacher then directs students to lie on the floor in silence for a few minutes before everyone rushes to roll up their mats and dive straight back into their hectic lives. The prolific presence of yoga across social media has very much compounded this perception of yoga and understandably, the ability to contort oneself into pretzel-like shapes or hold oneself in seemingly superhuman arm balances appears to be the only goal of many new yogis.
For a number of years, I bought into this and saw my yoga practice as a form of exercise, albeit a more restful alternative to other more physical activities such as running. Despite being someone who would describe themselves as 'spiritual', I somehow kept the spiritual aspects of yoga out of my day to day practice.
I suppose for me, there was an underlying fear that to truly embrace the 'yogic lifestyle' I would have to become vegan, give-up alcohol, wear clothes made only from organic hemp and stop dying my hair! Let me be absolutely clear here, I'm not trying to be frivolous and dismissive; I genuinely thought I couldn't be classed as a real 'yogi' unless I embraced everyone of these rather uninformed cliches.
However, as both my own personal practice and teaching have progressed, I have come to the conclusion that for me it is not possible to see yoga as a series of isolated movements.
To help put this into context, there are eight limbs of yoga, which are very briefly summarised below. Some you may be very familiar with, others you may not have encountered before:
- Yamas (retraints) - how you should behave towards others
- Niyamas (observances) personal observances and elements of self-respect
- Asana (physical poses) - the element of yoga most people are familiar with
- Pranayama (breath control) - learning to control the breath to aid relaxation etc
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses from objects) - remaining in the moment and not becoming distracted
- Dharana (concentration) - keeping the mind focussed
- Dhyana (meditation) - being totally present in the moment
- Samadhi (super-conscious state) - the goal of enlightenment
Whilst we can certainly make the practice of the asanas the focal point for a class, we essentially forego the lessons and benefits gained from the other 7 limbs if we chose to ignore them. For example, the ability to remain present in the moment and not worry about what will happen or has happened, is one of the many reasons people choose to do yoga as a form of relaxation.
As a teacher, I often encounter people with a negative self image, ranging from an annoyance that they cannot touch their toes, to feeling unhappy with the weight they have put on in recent years, to more serious issues surrounding self worth and body image. Yoga helps us accept our bodies for the wonderful gift they are and also teaches us to let go of our egos, particularly when we feel frustration that we cannot achieve certain poses. It is a valuable lesson to learn that achieving the pose may not be the goal; it is the progression and journey towards it that teaches us so much more.
As modern life becomes more hectic and more and more of us are looking to find space in lives that are already jam packed, an hourly yoga class is a great option. Many of us use exercise as a form of relaxation, but if that exercise is intense it can still place a lot of stress upon the body and therefore, prevents full relaxation. With that in mind, it might be time to reassess you yoga routine. Could you try a different class, perhaps one that allows for slower, more focussed movements such as a yin or restorative class? Could you bring a short savasana session into your daily life, perhaps 20 minutes before bedtime? What about using your lunchtimes to run through some sun salutations where you focus more on moving with the breath than attempting to build up a sweat?
If you'd like to find out more about how you can integrate more mindfulness and relaxation into your yoga practice, why not attend one of the Body Equilibrium classes? We run three weekly flow classes in Daventry and the surrounding villages and bi-monthly Sunday Restorative Evenings. The next Restorative Evening is 8th April 7-8:30pm. Future dates are 29th April and 13th May 2018. For more information, visit the workshops page here or get in touch on 07494 100165 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.