There's no shortage of hype surrounding the growing practice, but could it be the missing link in your routine?
Our bodies are finely-tuned machines, moulding to what we do with then, or don’t do. Sit, and our bodies stiffen to adapt to less movement. Move, and our bodies free up for more movement. As a collective, we’re training ourselves to be professional sitters, with physical activity in the UK dropping by 20% in less than two generations. Our grandparents and the greats before used a variety of verbs we are growing less and less familiar with: carry, run, dig, harvest, gather, jump, dance. Technology has engineered exertion out of daily life, and are we all the better for it?
To “do yoga” you don’t need any equipment. Nope, not even a mat; your living room rug will do. Active forms of yoga move the body in the three planes it was designed to move: forwards, sideways, twisting. As we work, drive, watch Netflix, text, we're flexing our spine forwards, tightening our hips and chest while weakening abdominal and back muscles. Styles of yoga such as hatha or vinyasa both strengthen and open the body, countering "bad posture" and easing the aches and pains of a body held for too long in one place.
If you're looking to get your body moving after a long day slouching, try 20 minutes of anti-desking yoga.
Agile at any age
Are you starting to feel creaks and aches creeping in? Does flexing your knees or arching your back come with an accompanying wince? Underuse joints and over time the surrounding connective tissues shrink wrap them, shortening to the minimum length needed to accommodate activities. All tissues in the body need some stress to remain and regain health: use it or lose it. We aren't fragile creatures shattered by stress (though it may feel this way sometimes) nor are we completely robust, floating past the traumas of life undented. Shocks, stressors, uncertainty, randomness impact us but we can ultimately benefit from them: we are antifragile. Our muscles, bones, joints, ligaments all need to be stressed, to a healthy degree, and then given time to recover and adapt from that stress. Astronauts come home from space and can barely walk: the bones that they have struggled to stress in space without gravity have lost density.
As we age, balance, flexibility, and strength all decrease. While it's well known that cardio exercise is crucial for longevity, muscular strength and flexibility are just as important in staving off ageing. A simple test of how easily you can stand up from sitting can predict how long you will live. As a yoga teacher I can't move for people proudly stating they're not flexible enough to do yoga. It's like saying you're too dirty to take a shower: there's no prerequisites and you're likely to gain the most from it (wouldn't you like to be able to sit on a floor, rug, beach comfortably?) Holding postures for long periods of time through styles such as Yin yoga work deep into the connective tissues that surround our bones and muscles. This promotes flexibility in areas of the body key to mobility such as our hips, pelvis and spine, expanding shrink wrapped joints. More dynamic styles such as ashtanga or vinyasa work flexibility by creating length and strength in muscles, rather than surrounding connective tissues.
Ready to limber up? Try 15 minutes of yoga for flexibility in the hips and hamstrings.
Variety is the spice of life
The consensus on movement is in: we need it. But we need movement that is practical and not just limited to making us experts on the leg adductor gym at the machine, which seems to be of no use other than to fuel the world's obsession with women crushing watermelons with their thighs. Many people get really good at their thing: lifting weights, football, netball, tennis, running (after medals or your kids).
But we were made to move in different directions and our bodies need diversity to prevent injuries that come after persistent, repetitive exercise.
A functional exercise routine would include cardio, strength, balance and mobility elements. While it is argued that some forms of yoga, particularly the dynamic, hot, sweaty kind are a cardio workout, it is the latter elements with which yoga is most commonly attributed. A dynamic yoga practice focuses on functional strength that replicates how our bodies move in the real world, creating stability, which prevents injury. Stretches improve range of motion, giving your body more leeway to move in unexpected ways. Balance work fine-tunes muscles that prevent slips and falls. Variability prepares your body for unfamiliar situations and movements.
The missing link between our mind and body
The mind and body are not distinct entities: components of the body and emotional responses share a common chemical language with which they are constantly communicating. Emotions are associated with bodily sensations: happiness floods our whole body with activity, anxiety fills the chest with a familiar tightness, nerves fill our stomach with butterflies. Many of us shun this relationship and plough on using our bodies as vessels to achieve our goals, but as psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk describes it: the body keeps the score. Emotional experiences affect our physiological health. This bidirectional communication between body and mind has been largely ignored by Western science, but it has always been central to traditional healing practices such as the Yogi’s of India and China's Daoism.
Yoga provides us with an opportunity for introspection and self-enquiry. We use the pose to get into the body, not the body to get into the pose. Make whatever shape you like, but what’s really interesting is what is happening within – what sensations, thoughts, emotions arise. We are continually presented with opportunities to evaluate what arises from an observer’s viewpoint, cultivating awareness. By tapping into this inner communication, we’re better at leaning into our intuition, resolving emotions, and nurturing physical health. We get closer to the meaning of yoga as a union between body and mind.
The notion of being “busy” is often swanked about, but for most of us it leads us to be drawn in so many directions at once we’re left clinging onto form like Stretch Armstrong (remember him?). Stress, though helpful to a degree, can leave a trail of havoc: tension in the body, a cloudy mind, sub-zero patience levels. With its dual focus on mind and body, yoga is a great way to let off steam. Western science is beginning to prove what ancient traditions have known for centuries: yoga reduces stress levels lowering cortisol and levels of inflammatory promoters.
The breath is the common fabric from which yoga practices are woven and is our most easily available tool to down-regulate the body. Slow, deep breaths counteract stress surges that speed up breathing and heart rates. The breath helps us to dive deeper in our mind, away from the noise of the chattering mind, and back to our “self”. Contemplative aspects of yoga, continually coming back to sensation, the breath, your body, cultivate a sense of awareness with acceptance, also known as mindfulness.
Perhaps yoga acts as a circuit breaker, disrupting auto-pilot mode. Or elements of non-competitiveness, non-judgement that are worked on provide relief from our capitalist world. Perhaps it’s the quiet or the music or the community. Whatever it is, we are living through a stress epidemic, no doubt exacerbated by a pandemic; up to 4 out of 5 doctors appointments are related to stress in some way. We need a toolkit of responses to counter.
Off the mat and into the world
Life happens on the mat. You get frustrated, judgemental, grumpy. Thoughts run through your mind, thoughts after thoughts after thoughts. Here's ten other things I could have achieved while stuck in this pose, why are my toes so gross, this teacher thinks I'm awful at this. Only, unlike our day to day lives, we’re gently guided back again and again to the idea of awareness without entanglement. Breathing into the space between thoughts, space between your “self” and thoughts. Not stopping the thoughts. Noticing when this narrative compounds, you react, you’ve planned out your entire email response to that arsey such and such. Coming back to the idea of space. Space to be aware of what is arising, with kindness and acceptance, because if not with kindness then you’re identifying with your thoughts again. Our “self” is this awareness with acceptance, anything else is mind chatter, it is not us. Ram Dass calls it loving awareness. As we walk back into our everyday lives, we can draw back to this idea of awareness, breathing into the space before we react to our thoughts.
So, what you’re saying is that contorting myself into a pretzel is going to better my life? Many of us have already stuck on our label of what-yoga-is: natural and unnatural flexibility, magically vague quotes, Lululemon leggings, unrelatable spirituality. Thanks, but no thanks. But there is not one yoga: many people do not pass through the gates of this revelation to explore further. There is yoga that gets your heart thumping and body working, and there is yoga that stills the mind and cultivates a philosophy for life. Yoga is an approach, not an end-shape, but that’s harder to explain in an Instagram caption when the pictures do so much of the talking.
Depending on your intention, yoga has varied effects. From mental and emotional easing to spiritual guidance to building strength, stability and agility. There is no form of yoga that is appropriate for all people; not everyone feels great sweating it out in hot yoga, not everyone feels peaceful holding space for stillness. The reality of human variation is vast and complicated. Yoga cannot cure all aspects of life that plague us, but against the backdrop of a world that is both fast paced and chaotic whilst sedentary and restricted, it offers a remedy.