Why Yoga Works - Or Does it?
At the studio I meet many people who tell me how great they feel after a Yoga class. Many clients have been coming for over a decade, practicing regularly, working through injuries, traumas, and stresses that life presents. Others come and don’t come back.
For a while now I have been collecting Yoga stories: Personal experiences of how Yoga impacts the physical and mental well-being, and trying to dig a bit deeper into exactly how Yoga makes that happen. I could find common aspects, such as that Yoga can be adjusted to every health and fitness level, that the breathing effects the mind, how the presence that is needed to focus on alignment and balance in poses brings peace of mind.
And still I am missing something. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Other exercises can be adjusted to different health levels. Dance focuses on alignment, balance and form, and don’t we all breath all the time anyway? So, what exactly makes Yoga different from all those other activities that certainly have great effect on our well-being, too?
I often ask myself, why am I still coming to the mat every day, for nearly 30 years now? I do like other activities as well, but non of them would I ever do so regularly and consistently. Any other sport would give us the satisfaction of “getting better at it”. We can measure how fast we can run, for how long, how high we can jump, how many games we won, how much muscle we gain, and weight we loose. If I look at my 30 years of Yoga experience, I truthfully cannot say for sure that I am so much stronger, more flexible, or more “enlightened” that before. Can I perform the poses better now? Probably it looked better 20 years ago! And still - I keep on practicing.
I look at any particular asana: We learn alignment, become more aware of our posture, strengthen muscles in some poses, getting a deep stretch in others. I am sure that is all helpful. We learn how a pose can stimulate inner organs, work on meridians, effect the nervous system. Maybe it works like a massage that we give ourselves in the inside? The deep breathing in our Yoga practice provides that mind-body connection that might make the difference. But then, we also breath deeply in other sports, for example when running.
Listening to some of the stories I hear, it baffles me that while many people have similar experiences in their Yoga practice, their specific conditions can be so vastly different. How can one activity be so tremendously helpful no matter if we are looking for rehabilitation from an injury, trying to get fit and slender, or more flexible, wanting to fix a sore back, release tension from a stressful job or help us get a more peaceful sleep, feel more energized, stimulate a sluggish digestion, or improve our balance? It seems too good to be true, and naturally that causes some scepticism - can it be true?
Yoga - an ancient Sanskrit word that mostly is translated as “union”, “yoke”, “something that unites”. There is evidence that in earlier times the word yoga was more used as a verb “to connect”, “to engage”, “to participate”. When we “do Yoga”, we connect mind and body, we engage with the world, we focus, the pay attention, we participate - within and without. That process will over time alter some of our perception, consciously we will change some choices we make. That process is what I call “doing Yoga”.
Does that happen with a particulate pose? The one pose that helps you sleep, the sequence that will burn all fat away, the asana for your sore shoulder or the one that beats the winter blues? No, of course not.
And voilà - here is where I believe the beauty of Yoga, but also the misconception often happens about its health benefits. It cannot be the one pose, the one sequence, the one class or workshop. Yoga happens over time when we recognize that the practice happens outside the studio in everyday life: A deep breath, a conscious move, a step aside from out typical path, a moment to check in with ourselves, questioning, a new choice, breaking habits.
And for that to happen, we need to practice a long time, regularly, many asanas, lots of breathing, connecting, singing, laughing, loving.