Wednesday 24 January 2018

Breathing space... Yoga-osophy

Yoga teaches us lessons that go way beyond the mat

Participants attend the Yoga Fest to mark the International Day of Yoga at the Medeo skating rink at the altitude of some 1600 metres (5249 feet) above sea level in Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 21, 2015. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Participants attend the Yoga Fest to mark the International Day of Yoga at the Medeo skating rink at the altitude of some 1600 metres (5249 feet) above sea level in Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 21, 2015. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

atie Byrne

Yesterday was the first ever International Day of Yoga and, at the time of writing, groups across the globe were preparing all manner of celebrations and outdoor demonstrations.

I met the Indian ambassador to Ireland, Radhika Lokesh, and Maureen Nightingale, chairperson of Yoga Therapy Ireland, in the weeks leading up to the event. They were busy organising yesterday's demonstration in St Anne's Park, Clontarf, and they had plenty to tell me about the benefits of the yogic lifestyle.

What stood out was a quote that they shared by psychotherapist Dr Sean Collins: "Those who teach or practise yoga, like throwing a pebble into a pond, create a gentle, positive ripple effect among their families, friends, communities and world."

We all know about the physiological benefits of yoga - increased flexibility, better bone health and circulation, to name just a few. We're also hearing more about the psychological benefits - yoga can alleviate anxiety, improve memory and lead to better sleep.

Dr Collins' insight points to another aspect entirely: the practice of yoga teaches lessons that go way beyond the mat. Yoga creates space for self-reflection, and while the insights that come through this mindset may be intangible and unquantifiable, they are no less significant.

Perhaps the most important of these insights is mind-body awareness. Yoga postures, which are designed to restore physical and mental health, also promote certain emotional states.

After practising yoga for a short time, I began to notice that Camel Pose made me feel vulnerable, Child's Pose made me feel safe and secure and Warrior Pose made me feel like I could take on a small army. I hasten to add that this is no namby-pamby, crushed velvet concept. In recent years, cognitive scientists have come to term what yogis have known for 6,000 years as 'embodied cognition' - which is the phenomenon whereby the body influences the mind just as the mind influences the body.

Yoga soon taught me that my posture could influence my mood. Off the mat, I began to notice that I became more assertive when I walked taller just as I instantly felt better if I turned my mouth up into a smile (even if I felt like doing anything but).

This is partly why many yoga teachers urge their students to smile during some of the more challenging postures. "Relax your facial muscles," they say. "Don't grimace".

Initially, it's difficult not to strain when you're challenged, but eventually, you learn to practise mind over matter. The benefits aren't just a serene smile and a smooth brow. The real-world takeaway is grace under pressure. I've always worked in deadline-oriented industries and I attribute yoga - specifically smiling through challenging yoga - with helping me maintain my poise when punching the computer screen seems like a reasonable reaction.

Yes, yoga certainly diffuses negative emotions, especially anger. I know this because I was very angry and cynical when I took it up in my late teens. I would turn up to classes with fire in my belly and smoke coming out of my ears. Needless to say, this attitude wasn't compatible with the practice. I was out of sync and out of breath. I fell out of balancing postures and I couldn't settle into the relaxation ones. Anger was disrupting my flow, on and off the mat.

Once I reached this epiphany - and it really was an epiphany - I noticed that the anger would dissipate halfway through the class. After a year of yoga classes, it dissipated altogether.

The breathing exercises helped too. Challenging postures are infinitely easier when you breathe into them - just as challenging life situations become much more manageable when you exhale deeply.

Yoga teachers often tell their students to "let go of unnecessary tension". Paradoxically, when we let go, we go further and more fluidly into whatever posture it is that we're fighting against. This is the art of non-resistance. The off-the-mat lesson is not to fight what can't be fought, or as the saying goes, 'what you resist persists'.

People say you leave your ego at the door when you practise yoga. That's not entirely true. Ego-dismantling is a journey during which you have to face up to your limitations and accept that you will never be the gazelle in the crop top in the front row. Another part of this journey is learning to fail in public. The more challenging postures - Headstand, Crow, Wheel - are fantastic for humility. Plus, you become more inclined to take risks outside of the studio when you realise that it's okay to collapse on top of yourself in a room full of strangers,

You'll eventually master these postures. Yoga teaches us that patience and practise reap rewards. However, like Milo of Croton, you have to consistently push past the comfort zone. Sometimes I notice that I've stopped trying with certain postures and then I wonder where else I've allowed myself to become complacent…

All yoga classes conclude with Shavasana, which is a pose of complete relaxation. It is in this pose that we consolidate the efforts of our practise. I'm convinced that there's a link between workaholism and those that spring up from the mat after the least amount of time. I used to be one of them until I learnt that you have to put effort into real relaxation.

Yoga is a masterclass in self-development and while many take it up for the physical benefits, they soon realise that it increases their flexibility, strength and balance in more ways than one.

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