Yoga and happiness
In the nearly five thousand years since its birth, yoga has been serving as a positive influence in the lives of countless people around the world.
In the last century, yoga, in its many forms, has made its way into mainstream western culture as an accepted physical practice which encourages strength, flexibility and balance. There will be many who will tell you that practising yoga on a regular basis will make you happy.
The physical benefits of the practice are undeniable, as are the benefits of any physical activity; endorphins will flow, lung capacity will increase, and sleep will improve. But the truth is, the physical practice of yoga will not make you happy. As one of the great yogis that I have had the pleasure of working with once told me: “if you’re here because you think getting to headstand will make you happy, you’re in the wrong place.”
When I first began my yoga journey, I may have been the least likely person in the room to see yoga as more than just a physical exercise. I was what we call an “A-typer”, a person with an A-type, competitive personality that had come to the practice because I had heard that I could increase my flexibility and strength, and maybe lose some weight. As I came to child’s pose for the first time, I struggled not to giggle at the yoga teacher’s words as she used phrases like “open your heart to the universe.”
I pushed myself, hard, and I was constantly striving to be the best in the class at one pose or the other.
I didn’t talk to anyone in the class; I was an island on my mat, completely focused on achieving something new at each session.
When I signed up for my first fifteen-day challenge, I had no idea that fifteen days of yoga would show me a way into community, bring me to tears of joy and pain and help me begin my journey to trusting others and accepting myself. In those fifteen days, I learned that the physical practice of yoga was not what was helping find these things in myself; it was the philosophy and meditation that my mat gave me the freedom to explore that was leading me to something much more valuable than momentary happiness.
The philosophy of yoga is centred on the practice of contentment and finding your way to the knowledge that whatever you are in any one moment is completely perfect. My yoga teachers explained to me that yoga had begun when gurus of the past found their bodies wasting away as they sat for hours, days at a time meditating. The breath that we use in the practice, called ujjayi breath, stems directly from that ancient practice of meditation, and the physical poses that we find ourselves in are only a mechanism for clearing the mind and coming back to the body as a source of contentment and comfort.
The number of Western scientific and social studies that focus on benefits of yoga are ever increasing, and nearly all government health departments and many health insurance companies recommend yoga as an excellent way to improve physical fitness and manage illnesses, such as depression and anxiety.
As a long time depression sufferer myself, I can vouch for yoga as a tool for overcoming some of the more acute symptoms of mental illness, but where other forms of physical activity had helped me forget the negative self-talk that circled through my head for an hour or two, yoga and the philosophy of yoga have taught me how to simply sit with my feelings, to examine them and to no longer be afraid of treating myself with some compassion. And, while the scientific study of wellness is quite legitimate and its findings on the effect of yoga on endorphin levels cannot be ignored, I find that the greatest alleviation to my depression has not been rising dopamine counts, but a simple phrase a teacher uttered once, without realising how much it would change my life: “you are not your thoughts”.
Yoga Vs Pilates. Ever wondered what the difference is between yoga and pilates? In essence, yoga ia an ancient mind-body system of wellbeing that ultimately aims to still the mind. Pilates is a series of exercises aimed at strengthening the core.
To release yourself from thoughts, to relieve yourself of the need to justify your every movement is a beautiful thing, and to find a quiet place in your mind which otherwise had been filled with harrowing thoughts and negative feelings has a direct impact on the way in which a person with mental illness copes with their symptoms. Again, I found that while the physical practice of yoga may lift my mood for an hour or so a day, the philosophies and teachings of contentment and mindfulness are where I found the greatest turnaround in terms of my depression.
The asanas or yoga postures
Each yoga posture, or asana, is held for a period of time and linked with breathing. Generally, a yoga session begins with gentle asanas and works up to more vigorous or challenging postures. A full yoga session should work every part of your body and should include pranayama (breath practices), relaxation and meditation.
The different postures or asanas include:
- Lying postures
- Sitting postures
- Standing postures
- Inverted, or upside-down postures
The times at which I have experienced some sort of revelation during yoga have not been when I achieved a perfect balance, or slipped in to a pose I did not think I could do, it was when I allowed myself to come back to child’s pose, and accept that today may not be the day for my body to do exactly what my ego desperately wanted it to do. To watch great yogis like Baron Baptiste, or even people in my class, achieve weightlessness through their poses still fills me with great envy, but I am now equipped with some tools that help me to gain perspective about what is important; and it’s not the pose.
Asanas. The practice of yoga asanas develops strength and flexibility while soothing your nerves and calming your mind. The asanas affect the muscles, joints and skin, and the whole body — glands, nerves, internal organs, bones, respiration and the brain. The physical building blocks of yoga are the posture and the breath.
This practice of self-compassion is something that can lead to great contentment; it is in those moments when you are gentle with yourself that you’re acknowledging that you deserve gentleness. Yoga is not a physical practice you can ‘win’ at, and removing the reward that may come with other forms of physical achievements is liberating.
The other benefit of yoga that you may not read about in a weekly woman’s magazine is the sense of community, which I personally had been lacking for quite some time. In Western culture, it is increasingly easy to become isolated and mistrusting. For me, yoga discouraged my tendency to shy away from talking to people I did not know or sharing things with people I had only just met. When you choose to exist in a community of others who share the same philosophy your tendency to judge will start to wane, which will, in turn, lead you to see that no-one who shares the practice with you harbours any desire to judge you.
To free yourself from judgement (of yourself, and of others) is extremely difficult, but the practice of yoga can lead you there through positive thought in meditation, rather than competition.
One of the yoga teachers who leads me in my practice takes great pleasure in breaking down the walls that we build in our daily lives. She likes to remind us that when you come to your mat, you are no longer in a cubicle or sitting at the other end of an email from some unknown superior; when you come to your mat, you are experiencing your humanity. As such, one of her favourite exercises is to have us turn to someone we do not know and ask us to look into that person’s eyes for thirty seconds. Is it uncomfortable? Yes? Is it liberating? Definitely.
Citta Vritti Nirodhah The ultimate goal of yoga is Citta Vritti Nirodhah: Cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. This one Sutra holds the key to all yoga practice. ‘If you can control the fluctuations of the mind you will experience yoga’.
The safety that you come to feel on your mat allows you to connect with another person for longer, and in a more meaningful way than you may have done all day, and I find it’s akin to hitting reboot after a long day of avoiding eye contact and avoiding building meaningful relationships.
In those moments, you cannot lie to yourself, or to the other person and it soon becomes an enjoyable exercise in which you make a metaphysical agreement with that person to help carry their burden as they will carry yours.
I also want to talk about my favourite part of any given yoga practice, and that is when I fall. I don’t necessarily enjoy getting a face full of carpet when I topple out of crow or sporting a bruise on my forehead when I overbalance in Gorilla pose.
What I do enjoy is my teacher’s reaction when he or she hears the tell-tale ‘thump’: “I love the sound of falling; it’s the sound of courage!” When I first heard this phrase, as I struggled red-faced off the floor, what I previously felt to be failure became a source of triumph! There is a not a yogi in the world who has not fallen, and will not continue to fall during their practice, but the courage to keep falling and not be afraid of the judgment your ego puts upon you is what makes them great. Yoga has taught me that courage does not come from being stoic, and bravery does not comes from ignoring the pain that your body feeds back to you when you push yourself too hard. Courage comes from self-awareness and the ability to laugh when you fall and back off when you hurt. Bravery comes from trying what may seem like an impossible pose with the knowledge that you may not achieve it today. One wonders how many doping scandals there would be amongst professional athletes had they supplemented their training with meditation and the practice of self-compassion!
If you have skipped over the bulk of the article, dismissing it as hippy-dippy nonsense (as I once would have) I urge you to take one thing from what I have learnt: if you go to yoga, don’t go because you hate the way you look, don’t go because you’re looking to build the upper body strength you’ve always wanted but couldn’t quite achieve.
Go to yoga when you’re ready to experience something different, and you’re ready to find contentment.
Non judgement. The physical postures in yoga take us into our bodies in a non-judgemental way. From this neutral viewpoint, we can see huge possibility. Without being blocked by preconceived ideas of what we can or cannot do, we are free to try, to fall, to play, and to grow.
Health benefits of yoga
The practice of yoga asanas develops strength and flexibility while soothing your nerves and calming your mind. The asanas affect the muscles, joints and skin, and the whole body — glands, nerves, internal organs, bones, respiration and the brain. The physical building blocks of yoga are the posture and the breath.
Health benefits of yoga include:
Cardiovascular system (heart and arteries)
Asanas are isometric, which means they rely on holding muscle tension for a short period of time. This improves cardiovascular fitness and circulation. Studies show that regular yoga practice may help normalise blood pressure.
Improved blood circulation and the massaging effect of surrounding muscles speeds up sluggish digestion.
Joints are moved through their full range of motion, which encourages mobility and eases pressure. The gentle stretching releases muscle and joint tension, stiffness and also increases flexibility. Maintaining many of the asanas promotes strength and endurance. Weight-bearing asanas may help prevent osteoporosis, and may also help people already diagnosed with osteoporosis (if practiced with care under the supervision of a qualified yoga teacher). Long-term benefits include reduced back pain and improved posture.
Improved blood circulation, easing of muscle tension and the act of focusing the mind on the breath all combine to soothe the nervous system. Long-term benefits include reduced stress, anxiety and fatigue, better concentration and energy levels, and increased feelings of calm and wellbeing.
YOGA. The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’, which means ‘to unify’ or ‘to yoke’.