It is hard to pick up a newspaper, read a magazine, or watch television these days without seeing something about the benefits of yoga. However, as a practitioner and teacher of yoga, I find myself underwhelmed by these efforts to promote it. Yes, yoga can help you lower your blood pressure, manage stress, and become more flexible — but so can a lot of other forms of exercise.
If you were to ask yoga students and teachers why they continue to return to their mats or why they believe yoga has survived for thousands of years, I don’t think their answers would look or sound anything like those glossed-over stories. They are more likely to tell you yoga has changed them, much like the student who recently told me that yoga has improved his marriage and other relationships as well as made him a better father.
I love to talk and, as a longtime student and now teacher of yoga, I find myself in many conversations about yoga. I am asked if yoga can make you skinny or fix your back. I am asked how much one needs to practice to experience the benefits. And I frequently hear some form of “I know yoga would be good for me, but I’m not flexible — I can’t even touch my toes.” This last one, quite frankly, makes me want to cringe.
Physical flexibility is often viewed as a big goal in yoga, and hearing “I’m not flexible” frustrates me because I believe our admiration of flexibility is misplaced. Tightness in our bodies can be a strength, signaling us when to stop. Flexibility can often lead to overuse of tendons, stressing of joints, and other injuries due to the body’s inability to sense its stopping point.
I am biased, but I believe yoga is good for every body and mind. Flexible dancers and gymnasts learn to engage underused muscles around joints. Yoga practitioners, who are tight due to inactivity or activity, can benefit by finding balance. And for the love of Pete, bend your knees! How did the ability to touch our toes somehow become the measure of our character or success in this world?
Physical postures are one way to cultivate flexibility in our bodies, but flexibility in our perceptions is important as well. In my personal practice, I find that mental flexibility is far more important. After class this week, a student of mine shared her frustration at the tightness in her lower back. She was worried about it and distracted by it in her practice, especially at her age (she is a recent high school graduate) and as a runner. Yoga asks us to consider the whole picture — our age; what we do physically, mentally, professionally, and in our spare time; as well as our physical injuries and mental trauma. All of this history shows up in our bodies.
It is possible to lose weight with yoga, but the degree of weight loss will depend on a wide range of factors. I tell people yoga makes you “skinny from the inside out.” It slowly peels away the layers of identity roles, ego, and expectations. It builds inner strength in your muscles, organs, and, most importantly, your mind. Part of our work in yoga is to begin letting go of attachments, judgments, and criticisms — those that we project both outwardly and inwardly.
It is also possible to reduce back pain and rehab other injuries through yoga. A lot of factors contribute to back pain: stress, tightness, overuse, poor posture, lack of sleep, direct trauma, a slipped or ruptured disc, neurological issues, or degenerative conditions, to name a few. It is important to consult a physician to diagnose a cause or source of pain. Pain and discomfort are often symptoms of other problems.
Yoga has the potential to bring us into not only physical alignment, but mental as well. It works the whole system, and often, unwittingly, we end up solving lots of the “issues in our tissues.”
Oddly, no one ever asks me if they will become enlightened if they practice yoga. Maybe we are too skeptical here in the West. Perhaps the stereotypical view of yoga simply being about bending ourselves into pretzels clouds our Western lenses. As a yoga teacher, I avoid saying what I truly believe about the power of a yoga practice. Perhaps I worry that I will scare people away. I know that, for many, I need to encourage the physical practice first — the asana. It is the gateway drug into our Western mind. To be effective, students must discover the benefits of this practice in their own time.
The beauty of yoga is that it meets the practitioner where he or she is. If yoga shows up as meditation, that is wonderful. If yoga means sweating in 115 degree heat and 60 percent humidity, I hear you. And if yoga means reciting a chant, dancing in a circle, and banging a drum — go for it! My purpose, or dharma, as a yoga teacher is to create the space for students to discover this ancient practice, which is so much more than the ability to touch their toes. Yoga just may save their lives.
It’s a bad, bad world. Or is it?
As a culture, we are at dis-ease with ourselves. We have identified with the external world to the extent of not knowing who we truly are. We are inundated with social media, constant noise and chatter, screaming pundits, and magazine images. All are fighting to convince us of what to believe, which standards of beauty to buy into, and how our lives and dreams should look. The more disconnected we are to one another, the more tribal we become in our behaviors. When we view ourselves as separate from others, we begin to believe that we must protect ourselves from otherness. Those who do not look or think the way we do become dangerous in our minds. The troubles of the world, the stress of daily life, and the negative emotions of fear, anxiety, anger, envy, and jealousy begin to have an effect on our minds and in our bodies.
These destructive emotions form mental patterns and, often, negative behaviors. We turn to soothing ourselves with drugs, alcohol, gossip, materialism, and other vices — all with a desire to escape constant stress and negativity. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were an easy answer? These patterns and perceptions are formed in our mind, and, therefore, it is our mind we must change. Confronting and changing our mind and connecting to our true self are the solutions to our problems.
Rod Stryker, founder of ParaYoga and author of The Four Desires: Creating a Life of Purpose, Happiness, Prosperity, and Freedom, notes, “Perception is not more important than Truth. We seem to have lost our way. Fewer and fewer of us seem interested in reflecting deeply, finding truth, thinking for ourselves, or even being willing to take the time to try.” It is imperative that we begin to assume responsibility for making change in the world, not through trying to change the minds or dominating others, but through conquering our own minds, our misperceptions, biased thinking, and the roles in which we have imprisoned others and ourselves.
The eight-limbed path
It is easy to focus on the problems of the world and feel overwhelmed or helpless. However, solving these challenges may be shooting too high. Perhaps change must start on a much smaller scale, with the smallest, most unceremonious of shifts. Is it a pill? Please, please, please, let it be that easy, right? Nope. We must choose to shift from focusing externally to focusing inward. Or as my mother used to say, “Don’t worry about what ‘they’ are doing; worry about yourself.”
Making this shift is daunting. It is hard, lonely work. Life gets messy, stressful, and overwhelming. It is challenging to ground and center in this modern world. The practice of yoga and those devoted to spreading its teachings provide an excellent support system.
This support system began thousands of years ago when yoga, as an oral tradition, was handed down from teacher to student through generations. Eventually, early texts such as the Yoga Sutras laid the framework for this ancient tradition. In the Yoga Sutras, one or more philosophers named Patanjali present the eight-limbed path of yoga. These guidelines help to cultivate intentional and connected lives with the purpose of reducing suffering through harmony in the body and mind.
When students begin the work of the eight-limbed path, they soon experience that each limb is connected and intertwined with the other. It is difficult to practice one limb in isolation.
The path begins with the yamas, which is often translated as restraints, and involves one’s own integrity or ethics. The yamas are nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation or abstinence, and non-covetousness or non-hoarding. On the surface, it seems black and white; however, the practice asks us to look deeper into the gray area. Non-stealing seems simple — not many of us overtly steal. How often do you shrug off compliments, though? Are you stealing the other person’s offering, their joy, or yours?
The second limb, the niyamas, works on cultivating self-discipline and the inner being, including cleanliness, contentment, discipline/inner fire, self-study and the study of scriptures/texts, and surrendering to the god or creator of your understanding. If the use of God creates a roadblock, I encourage the integration of your own belief structure or recognizing our connection to everything around us.
The physical postures in yoga are called asana, although the Yoga Sutras do not actually list particular postures. Yoga views the body as a temple. It is the home to our spirit and soul and should be honored as such. Physical movements and postures can help cleanse and strengthen our bodies. But our ability to do a handstand does not define us as a successful yogi. Lots of people can flip upside down. Perhaps the reason asana has become the face of yoga in the West is that the postures allow us to practice integrating all of the limbs. Working toward a goal — being present in the posture, content with all that arises mentally and physically — is yoga. When we learn something about ourselves through the physical work, it becomes yoga.
Working with our body’s energies, particularly the breath, is called pranayama. This is an essential tool to connect our bodies with our minds. The magic truly begins to happen when we become aware of our ability to control our mental and physical reactions through manipulation of the breath. Breath work can be used to signal the brain’s nervous system that everything is okay: We can effect change in our blood pressure, and we can learn to shut down overactive fight or flight responses, reducing stress. Yoga honors the breath in particular. Breath is our life force and is often taken for granted. I personally connected deeply to this truth as I witnessed my daughter’s first breaths and my father’s last.
The final limbs begin with a shift inward, and this cultivation of focus is the beginning of a deeper meditation practice. Pratyahara is the turning away from the distractions of the outside world and focusing on our inner selves. At this stage, one is aware of his or her surroundings but not distracted by or reacting to them. Think of this stage as zoning out with awareness. When our attention moves away from outside distractions, we are able to work toward a single point of focus. This is dharana. Although very similar, the stage of meditation, or dhyana, is distinguished by moving into a state of pure awareness without an object of focus. Practice of these three limbs — pratyahara, dharana, and dhyana — reveals their fluidity and connection. I find myself experiencing moments in each: being distracted from and then flowing back in as I attempt to find stillness in my practice.
Finally, realizing samadhi, or bliss, is defined as transcending one’s self and profoundly connecting with the divine. It is the dissolution of worldly desires and cares. It is peace. The tricky thing about this state of bliss is that it is indescribable. In this enlightened state, practitioners do not need to expound upon their arrival, because they do not care that they have arrived. I often joke, “What happens in enlightenment, stays in enlightenment,” because the dude bragging about being enlightened is, in fact, not enlightened.
The Hoosier state of yoga
In a place known for its diverse people and thirst for knowledge, Bloomington is often described as a melting pot. The local yoga scene is no different. Despite the dogma of some, there is no single way to explore the practice of yoga. The numbers of talented, studied teachers and opportunities for deeper personal study are growing locally and regionally.
A wide variety of styles and traditions are now available in our community, enabling both the experienced and newcomers a chance to explore this ancient practice.
Locally, curious students can explore Ashtanga, Power, Vinyasa Flow, Bikram, Yin, restorative, and meditation traditions through classes, workshops, or trainings. Many of these traditions offer music, props, set postures, and sequences. Speed of movement and the inclusion of heat will vary widely among styles.
Devotional practices such as Bhakti use chants and mantras; Kundalini incorporates chanting and actions, called kriyas, to encourage movement of energy; and Holy Yoga weaves Christian philosophy and prayer into the classes. Hybrid classes, which incorporate weights, spinning, or rowing, are becoming more popular. Often criticized for not teaching what some consider to be true yoga, Vinyasa and fitness instructor Ellie Bernstein embraces the mash-up styles as a way to “make the intense challenging work of yoga fun.” The needs of particular demographic groups, such as children, teens, seniors, men, and members of the LGBTQ community, are now being met locally. Classes such as Enchanted Yogis, Chair Yoga, Broga, and Queer Yoga seek to create a safe place for those who may feel their expression of identity fall outside yoga norms.
Therapeutics of yoga and integrative therapies are also accessible in Bloomington. “Yoga Therapy, with its comprehensive set of practices and teachings for body, breath, and mind, is one of the answers to a much needed transformation of our current approach to healthcare,” says Lauralyn Riggins, DPT, E-RYT, an instructor in kinesiology at Indiana University and a yoga therapist. “Yoga therapy can help support the traditional Western medicine approach of treating the many diseases of modern civilization, since many of these diseases have been closely associated with high stress and unhealthy lifestyles.” Integrative therapies such as massage, Reiki, sound and somatic healing, and Ayurveda can support both traditional medical and addiction treatments by incorporating lifestyle recommendations, proper diet, and daily mental and physical routines.
Change your mind, change the world
Solving the world’s problems, or even our own, through yoga may seem daunting, mystical, or far-fetched. Or perhaps thoughts of giving up all worldly goods and sitting for hours in a cave have crept into your psyche. Don’t be intimidated — I have not yet answered one of those questions I’m always asked. “How often do you have to practice yoga for it to work?” Two minutes a day! Yep, if you give yourself just two minutes a day of intentional breathing, focus, stretching, or observing your reactions, you are well on your way to making a huge difference in your life.
Yoga is ultimately a contemplative practice that asks us to assume personal responsibility for our thoughts and master our own reactions. Taking responsibility for changing ourselves is far more possible than forcing an entire planet of people to agree on what is right vs. wrong, what religion to follow, or how to protect the environment or feed the hungry. So perhaps it is worth a shot. After all, as Bryan Kest, a prominent yoga instructor, says, “enlightened” simply means “to turn the lights on.” It means to see the truth and not hover in other worldliness, but to be firmly grounded here, in the present, in truth and love. So start small and explore the many options.