The following scenario is a typical experience for a yoga teacher when meeting someone for the first time:
“Hey, you’re a yoga teacher! Wow….I’d love to try yoga but I’m not flexible….I tried yoga once, but I couldn’t even do down dog…Do you do that really hot yoga?…..You must be soooooo relaxed all the time!”
Generally, there’s lots of giggles and affirming comments from the yoga teacher to the inquisitive and prospective yoga student. Whilst it’s great to enhance awareness one conversation at a time, it’s also great to share information more broadly in articles such as this. Hopefully it will help the wanna-be yoga students to find their way onto the yoga mat sooner. Here’s some overall benefits of practising yoga, whether you are just stretching it out a little on a regular basis or engaging in a holistic, yoga practice. Oh, and just so you know, yoga teachers are not soooo relaxed all the time!
It really doesn’t matter if you call it “yoga”, or not!
It is true that yoga is more than simply stretching, breathing or chanting OM. The term ‘yoga’ is derived from the sanskrit word, yuj meaning ‘to yoke’ and can have many connotations, including ‘union.’ It alludes to ‘forming a union or yoking our consciousness with a higher consciousness to find liberation. Today, we are more familiar with yoga as a system of poses or shapes that we make with our bodies, and yes, some of these shapes cause us to stretch considerably. It is important to remember, however, that yoga is an ancient science that extends beyond the physical, reaching back more than 5,000 years, even as far back as 20,000 years, according to some scholars. The ancient yoga texts outlined various paths for the yogi to take, a system for living life, if you will, whereby the ultimate universal truth for unity with everything, was the overall aim. In ancient times, the yoga practice was generally based on studying scripture and meditation. Fast forward to the 20th century when yoga was brought to the West, and we especially fell in love with the physical practice. In my opinion as a yoga teacher, there is nothing wrong with that! What I have noticed through my own practice and over the past 16 years as a teacher, is that many people come to yoga due to the physical benefits they notice. Often, these benefits, be they increased flexibility or strength, keep the student coming back to their yoga mat each week. Technically, the physical practice may be only one arm of yoga, but, if the feeling of stretching-it-out is the most important thing to you, then I say that’s great! I know the longer the student practises with a dedicated teacher, the more likely they are to explore, (and quite possibly fall in love with), some of the other important arms of yoga, and these include breathing, or pranayama, and meditation.
Let’s talk about stretching
If you’ve never taken a yoga class before, one of the first things that you may notice the next day is how sore your hamstrings may feel. This is generally the case, even for those people who are quite fit. Potentially, this is due to the fact that yoga movements are a combination of strength-building and soft-tissue lengthening exercises. As an example, most people are familiar with the yoga pose, downward-facing dog: hands and feet on the floor about 1.5 metres apart with the tailbone reaching high to the sky; the body makes an upside-down ‘V’ position. Here, we have strength-building in the upper body, as the body’s weight is borne by the hands, arms and shoulders, and a massive stretch down the muscles of the hamstrings and calves. It’s also an upside-down pose, so we get to revisit that feeling of hanging from the monkey-bars as a kid, but more importantly, the inversion has great benefits for our nervous and lymphatic systems.
Our bones are dynamic, living tissues that are greatly enhanced through weight-bearing exercises. Yoga applies healthy stress to the bones, often using the body’s own weight against the force of gravity, and this strengthens the bones and strengthens the muscles that support the bones and joints. Through the science of Yin yoga, we know of the benefits of yoga to our connective tissues, especially to the stocking-like covering of fascia, that encases every muscle and organ in our body. Paul Grilley, one of the world’s most credible Yin yoga teachers, describes this practice as “a form of yoga that stimulates the connective tissues of the body. It is intended to compliment Yang forms of [movement] which stretch and strengthen muscle tissues of the body.” The aim of Yin yoga is to increase circulation in the joints and to improve flexibility via changes at a fascial level. Stretching this way also helps us to regulate the body’s flow of energy as the fascia has an intricate system of nerves, making it a highly informed area of the body. Yin yoga is also great news for those would-be yoga students who are worried about their lack of flexibility, as this practice is conducted mostly on the ground with lots of props to help.
Stretching with breath-centred movements to benefit the mind
There is a saying that goes something like this: “you cannot have a still, quiet and relaxed mind inside a tense body.” Stress, anxiety, anger, fear, worry etc., all cause tension in the body. The muscles of the pelvic floor and the trapezius muscle, (the large, kite-shaped muscle that spans the neck, shoulders and back), are two groups of muscles that respond involuntarily to the presence of tension in the body. It’s as though the more tense we feel, the higher and higher our shoulders rise towards our ears. It is generally true, however, that tension between our ears, will result in overall muscular tension throughout the body, so many people report, for example, that their lower back feels extra tight when they are stressed.
I am aware that many people find stretching rather boring so here’s some tips:
1. Go to a yoga class, and even better, take a friend with you. It turns out that we are more likely to continue with our health goals if we have a friend with us. When choosing a yoga class, be sensible! If you’re a beginner, opt for a beginner’s class. If you have lots of injuries, be sure to call the studio to find out the most appropriate class for you. If you are dealing with a lot, you’re recovering from illness, or your just plain tired, then avoid the hot, fast dynamic class and choose a restorative or Yin class instead. Going to a yoga class, either in person or trying an online class means that you’ll be stretching and you won’t even notice it. Hopefully, you’ll also get the benefit of breathing and meditation as well.
2. Where are you the tightest? Typical, troublesome areas are hamstrings, lower back, shoulders and hip flexors. Intuitively move into a position where you can feel these tense areas stretching. ‘Good stretching’ will result in a warm, spreading feeling. Unbearable pain means you have gone too far. The best advice is to find appropriate length in the muscle and to hold for time, for example, a great way to stretch the hamstrings is to lay on the ground with knees bent. Straighten one leg to the sky and loop a strap, belt, scarf etc. around the arch of your foot and hold onto both ends of the strap in your hands. The leg must be straight. If you cannot straighten the leg, then release the strap a little. Hold for two minutes or more. Don’t forget to do the other leg.
3. If it’s a choice between not doing these stretches and doing them as you watch Netflix, listen to music or a podcast, then that’s fine. Try some mindfulness, perhaps? There’s amazing online resources to help, such as Insight Timer or Smiling Minds. We live in such a yang-dominated world and we often seem so hesitant to slow down. Stretching may be just the antidote to the yang-ness that we need to sharpen our present moment awareness. Dr. Joe Dispenza says that “where your attention goes, your energy flows,” so if we are constantly giving attention to the things in our life that cause annoyance or aggravation then that is what we will continue to manifest. It may just be possible for us to use simple stretches accompanied by breath as a way to focus our attention on simply the inhale and exhale as a pathway to the first of the yoga guidelines, and that is, “yoga is practised in the now.”
4. Don’t hold your breath. This is quite normal when we tetter on the edge between pain and discomfort, so yogi’s choice is to work with breath-centred movements. This means consciously inhaling and exhaling in a way that releases tension by dialing-down sympathetic nervous system activity. Modern yoga guru, B.K.S. Iyengar is famous for quoting an ancient yoga text: “Mind is the king of the senses; breath is the king of the mind’ and nerves are king of the breath.” For modern day wisdom on the dangers of breathing poorly, you cannot go past Breath by James Nestor. In Breath, Nestor outlines the best rate of breathing for overall physiological health is to inhale for a count of 5.5 and the exhale for a count of 5.5. This is one round. Try and work up to ten or more rounds in a row. Whilst you’re on the floor stretching, start playing with this breathing practice. Learning to control the movement of breath is a stepping stone to meditation and mindfulness. The research into the benefits of meditation and mindfulness are too numerous to mention here, but we know that even short daily practices assist with regulating nervous system responses, improves immunity, rebuilds new neural pathways in the brain and changes gene expression to turn-off the genes that cause disease.
So stretching is good, but is yoga better?
Well, I began my yoga journey back in 1999 and I’m still practising, so I guess the answer to that question is undoubtedly yes! My own practice looks very different now in comparison to even ten years’ ago, but that is the beauty of yoga; it moves with you as you move through your life. I believe it is our job, as students, to use the practice intelligently, and as a teacher, it is my job to meet you wherever you are at in your practice.
If you’ve never practised yoga before and you would like to, a post-pandemic gift is that just about every yoga studio has an online studio or Livestream classes that you can try. This will help you to work out what is best for you. Your flexibility, or lack-there-of, is no concern and I am always telling my students that I don’t care if they can turn themselves into a pretzel or stand on their head! My own teacher of ten years would say, “if you can breathe, you can do yoga.” By now, you are aware from what you’ve read above that yoga is a holistic body, mind and spirit practice. Yoga and meditation cannot be separated, but again, if you’re just starting out, focus on the areas that are most important to you. When I was in my 20’s, it was vitally important to me that I could stand on my head for 10 minutes. Now, I am more interested in what I can do with my breath and my mind, but that doesn’t mean that one area of practice is more important than the other.
The benefits of practising yoga is ever expanding. We are so fortunate that yoga and meditation are now the subject of robust, randomized-controlled studies to prove the efficacy of regular practice. Again, the research is too extensive for this article, but this report by Harvard Medical School is a great place to start. What it shows is that yoga has benefits for everyone at every stage of life, whether that be the beneficial effect of a regular prenatal yoga practice on the health of the baby or because it improves sleep quality and reduces falls in the elderly. Some of the benefits are unexpected too. For example, the overall great health and wellbeing experienced by those with a regular yoga practice is partly due to the sense of being part of a community who genuinely cares for others. This is the primary reason that I continue to teach because I see and hear, every day, stories of the enormous value that people receive from their yoga practice. So, if simple stretching is a pathway to some of these benefits, then that’s amazing! If, however, you’re only focused on lengthening your hamstrings for the moment, then that’s fine as well. Humour me and at least try a little mindfulness whilst you’re at it!