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!