What is yoga other than an excuse to wear stretchy pants 24/7? Yoga is not all trend-chasing and namaste puns. In fact, yoga is as much about the mind as the body. Whether you’re new to the practice or an avid participant in yoga, let’s take a look at the invaluable benefits of meditation through movement (aka yoga!).
Yoga originated in India, the birthplace of many practices that employ a tryptic approach to health and healing (mind, body, higher self). Ayurveda, a nutrition practice based on your inner, outer, and spiritual self, is another example (a great way to eat and take preventative measures for your personhood’s specific needs).
The most important aspect of yoga practice is the breath. Think of the breath as the bass in a band; it’s the ear’s keeper of rhythm, the part of the music that is both heard and felt. Just as music would be superficial without a baseline, yoga practice can feel more like awkward dancing without full awareness of the breath. Mastering a steady breath with equal inhales and exhales will allow your body the space to hold poses and isometrically strengthen muscles that aren’t usually activated. Breathing may seem like a no-brainer, but intentional breath requires a heavy dose of mindfulness. The hard work in yoga is cultivating the patience to move slowly and breathe steadily.
During practice, make sure you notice which moves trigger sensation in certain parts of the body. Body scanning is a valuable tool to keep your mind free of distracting thoughts as you practice. Body scanning is accomplished by focusing the breath, sensation, and mental awareness into a particular place on your body. If you’re in a pose like Warrior II (front leg bent with knee over the toe, back leg straight with toes at 90 degrees, arms straight out parallel to hips) the front knee is responsible for a lot of weight and stability. If you counter this effort by focusing your attention on the back foot, actively pressing down on the earth, and isolating thought wholly on that foot, the pose will become easier.
This may sound like an “easier said than done” scenario, but the power of the mind as an assistant to the physique works wonders. Yoga practice is about clearing the mind and clarifying the body, momentarily ridding yourself of the noise of the outside world. This is also easier said than done. A helpful tip for allowing thoughts but not letting them take center stage is to acknowledge them, like a passing cloud. Recognize you had a thought, whether it’s about a task, person, or worry, and acknowledge it with a mental nod. This helps remove the steam from the thought without punishing yourself for allowing the thought to present itself. The mind is a muscle just like the glutes that burn during warrior II, it takes practice to build up resistance.
Movement in yoga is most effective when done slowly. In fact, the majority of the “work” being done is isometric. An isometric movement is a subtle, internal rotation of the muscles. There is no visible movement in the joint. Isometric contraction activates the muscles that are underworked because the more prominent muscles take over during intense movement.
- Skull Loop – forward rotation
- Shoulder Loop – backward rotation
- Kidney Loop – forward rotation
- Pelvic Loop – backward rotation
- Thigh Loop – backward rotation
- Calf Loop – forward rotation
- Ankle Loop – backward rotation
During all poses, even tadasana (standing with arms slightly out facing forward), keep these directional loops active in your posture. This may be an overwhelming amount of conflicting movement, so practice one at a time! You’ll notice how much easier certain poses become as you activate these loops. The main purpose of maintaining these isometric loops is to protect vulnerable places in your body such as the lower back, neck, knees, and hips.
Two additional and equally important aspects of yoga to keep in mind as you move are alignment and rootedness. Alignment in the hips and shoulders keeps you balanced so your weight is well dispersed. Your hips should always create a parallel or perpendicular line with the ground. If a pose requires you to place your hands on the ground, make sure the hand and shoulder line up to protect your elbow.
Rootedness refers to the body points that connect with the ground. These points are your secret weapon to finding length. In a perfect downward dog, legs, back, and arms are straight while the tailbone is pointed straight up at the sky. This can be difficult for many because of hamstrings, the bane of many people’s flexibility. The best adjustment you can make in this pose that renders immediate results is to press your hands into the earth and isometrically attempt to pull the mat in opposing directions with your flush palms. Think of the ground as a springboard; you won’t feel it physically pushing back at you unless you use your own power to create a dual reaction. Listen to your body as you try out these techniques. It’s more important to feel safe in your body than to nail a pose.
You do not need to have particular beliefs to benefit from the subconscious aspects of yoga, although having an open mind is helpful to prevent you from shying away from looking inward. Be gentle with yourself as you practice, recurring thoughts, no matter how false they are, can become your reality if you allow them permanent real estate in your mind. Meditation is an invaluable way to polish the inner (higher) self subconsciously. Keep an eye out for our next blog to learn more about meditative practices.
Potential Benefits of Yoga
1. Improve strength, balance, and flexibility
2. Relieve back pain
3. Ease arthritic symptoms
4. Boost heart health
5. Relax to sleep better
6. Feel more energy and brighter moods.
7. Manage stress subconsciously