How Exactly Does Yoga Work?

I’ve always struggled to explain how yoga works, in other words, why we receive the benefits from yoga that we do.

You’ve seen cute memes that say things like “I practice yoga because punching people is frowned upon.” Of course it’s meant to be funny, but there is also some truth to it.

The question is, how exactly does yoga stop you from making poor choices, like punching people, or saying the wrong thing, or making unhealthy choices when it comes to sleep, food, hydration, stress, relationships, etc.?

When I was in India last month, I finally found the answer to this question.

The short answer is that mindfully breathing and moving the body through specific postures or sequences teaches the brain to focus, be present, be patient, and be accepting. For the details, keep reading…

Focus & Be Present
In order to successfully follow teacher’s instructions, you must focus on the instructions and also on your own body.

If your mind wanders off, or if you get distracted by the person on the mat in front of you, or if you start to think about how well you performed the last posture, or which posture is coming next, the break in your focus will be evident. You’ll make a wrong movement and get out of sync with the teacher’s instructions and with your fellow classmates.

Yoga practice is a physical exercise, yes, but it’s also a way for your mind to practice focusing and being present.

Yoga practice also teaches your mind to be patient. You can’t very well anticipate what the teacher is going to teach and get ahead of her instruction.

In order for the practice to flow smoothly, your mind has to be patient, hear the instruction, instruct the body to follow the instruction, then the body follows the instruction. Over and over again.

In yoga philosophy we have two important concepts that are very relevant to the physical yoga practice: ahimsa (do not harm) and satya (truthfulness). Whether we know it or not, when we practice yoga, we practice these two concepts.

We practice ahimsa by avoiding or modifying postures that are overly challenging for us because trying to perform them may cause us harm.

And in order to practice ahimsa, we must practice satya. We must be truthful with ourselves about our level of ability. It’s easy to get carried away with cool looking postures and go beyond what’s healthy or safe. Ahimsa and satya keep us in check.

With time and practice, ahimsa and satya lead to acceptance. Acceptance of ourselves, our abilities, and our limitations.

The Role of Conscious Breathing
Conscious breathing is what differentiates yoga from exercise. In yoga practice, we’re not only moving our bodies; we’re coordinating the pace of our breath to the pace of the movement.

To breathe consciously, we breathe in and out through the nose, use ujjayi breath, follow a specific breathing pattern, and monitor the quality of the breath. When the breath becomes labored, we know we’re working too hard and it’s time to ease back a bit or rest.

Breathing adds another layer of interest to keep the mind engaged and focused. 

The Evolution of Yoga Practice
We’re initially attracted to yoga as a physical exercise, but soon we begin to experience more subtle benefits. Life seems easier. We can’t put our finger on what has changed, but we know something has definitely changed. The difference is that we’re making better choices for ourselves. How exactly does this happen?

The yoga practice - the combination of physical movement and conscious breathing - trains the mind to be more focused, present, patient, and accepting. These new skills are not specific to the yoga practice - they carry over into your real life too.

Your Life on Yoga
When you have a dedicated yoga practice, at the moment when you need to make a decision or take an action, your mind is focused, present, patient, and accepting.

You are focused and present, so you are able to take in all the relevant information. You accept the details of the situation. Rather than reacting impulsively, your patience allows you to take a brief pause. In that pause you have an extra fraction of a second to consider your response. In that fraction of a second you find a better alternative than punching someone.

And that’s how yoga works. Consistent yoga practice over a long period of time yields incredible subtle benefits due to the conditioning of the mind. Pretty incredible, isn't it?

If you’d like to ramp up your practice and enjoy the subtle benefits of yoga, join us for our upcoming 40 Day Challenge.

It’s a great program that provides motivation and accountability to help you complete 30 yoga classes in 40 days. If that goal seems daunting, don’t worry! - we’ve just added a home practice option for those days when you just can’t make it to the studio. Click here for details.


P.S. Yes, I'm back from India! I'm sorry I missed sending out newsletters the past two weeks. Two weeks ago I was immersed in final exams from my training course, and last week I was recovering from jet lag and reverse culture shock. I have lots of stories to share, so please stay tuned!

Yesterday I Stood Up for Someone.

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Yesterday I when I came home in the evening a group of boys was playing cricket on the street in front of my apartment. They spoke some English and explained the basics of the sport to me. After a little while one side won and the game was over so they let me swing the bat and try to hit the ball. I hit it on the third try. The bat was heavy! I didn’t realize the bat’s supposed to point down, not like how you swing a baseball bat.

I hung around a little longer and there was some commotion a short way down the street. It was a moment of confusion, then one of the boys said to me, “Man is hitting his mom.” That shook me into reality. I didn’t see the man actively hitting the older woman (who was holding the hand of a small boy), but there was obvious tension between them. I felt I should do something, but before I could figure out what to do the woman was quickly leading the boy down the street and the man did not follow.

In that moment I made a semi-conscious vow that if I ever saw something like that again, I would take some kind of action.

Who would have thought that I’d see a similar situation less than 24 hours later?

Today I spent most of the day studying at the 5-star hotel where my two classmates are staying. I walked out the front door of the hotel a few minutes before 4:00 this afternoon. My cousin-in-law was picking me up for a shopping break and some early dinner.

I waited for him outside the front door, in front of the beautiful curved driveway and street-facing water feature, laptop bag and book bag slung over my shoulders, flip flops on my feet.

A commotion occurred at the close end of the driveway, by the street. It was a thin woman in a red sari and an angry overweight man. He was shouting in Tamil and I could see she was scared. Without even thinking, I walked straight to them.

Halfway down the drive, I raised my own voice. Speaking in English, I said something like, “Leave her alone!” I was simultaneously brave and scared. He was very angry about something and his eyes were very red. Other men gathered around. I realized a thin man to my left had blood on his lower lip.

I kept talking in a strong voice, repeatedly telling him to go away, leave her alone, stop shouting at her. The gathered men moved to stand between the angry man and the woman. They gestured and tried to convince the angry man to go away.

While the men were distracted, I wrapped my right arm around the woman’s shoulder and asked her in a calm voice if she was ok. I don’t know if she understood me, but she did seem relieved that someone was taking up for her.

The angry man tried say something to me, but I just kept on talking in my strong voice. A hotel security guard appeared and I asked him to call the police.

That seemed to register with the angry man. I said to him in my strong voice, “Shall we call the police?” Someone responded in a gentle voice, “No police.” They were trying to deescalate the situation.

In that moment, out of nowhere, a policeman appeared. He talked briefly and tersely to the angry man, then to the thin woman and some of the other men who were standing there, then he sent the angry man in one direction down the road and the thin woman and the thin man walked away in the other direction.

I don’t know from where I got the bravery to step in like that, but I am glad I did. Bullies and abusers are weakened when someone steps up. Maybe (maybe?) he’ll think twice before treating someone like that again.

Before I walked away, I asked the policeman if she was safe. He gave a half nod. Of course he doesn’t know if she is safe, but I wanted to plant the seed with him too that someone cares about this situation, and this kind of behavior and abuse is not ok. Maybe (maybe?) it will inspire some kind of action in him.

I’m sure the locals were pretty shocked to see a foreigner intervening in this situation today, but the way I see it, wherever abuse happens, someone needs to step up and say it’s not ok. We must stop turning the other way. We must stand up for each other.

When I did walk away, my hands were trembling, my heart pounding, and tears filled my eyes. I know the hotel doormen saw what happened and what I did. Maybe (maybe?) they too will be inspired to stop abuse if and when they see it happen.

I love India. And today I’m proud of myself for stepping up to defend my anonymous Indian sister. May she be safe and well.