Yoga for Mind, Body & Soul
Many people associate yoga with super bendy, kale eating, incense burning folk- but todays profile of a yoga practitioner has changed dramatically and is much more far reaching and diverse than fits the stereotype. At Himalaya Yoga Valley Cork we are delighted to see this diversity in our client base- people rolling out their mats in our centre include fitness fanatics, retirees, sports teams, corporates and their staff, the mobility impaired, weightlifters, newborns and their moms, ballet dancers and everyone in between! More people are now embracing yoga when they would hardly have considered it (and lets be honest, probably thought it a little weird) a decade ago. So how has yoga merged into the mainstream? What makes people from all walks of life keep showing up on their mat week after week to stretch, meditate, breathe and sweat it out together? Although yoga is an ancient science originating in India over 2000 years ago it makes sense that it has seen such an emergence in the west in recent times. We are more stressed out, over stimulated, over worked, digitally over connected and personally disconnected from ourselves than we have ever been.
Yoga as a holistic science is an excellent tonic for these common stressors because it addresses not only our physical needs but our emotional & mental needs as well through the power or reconnection. When practised regularly yoga nourishes and heals us on a holistic level whilst bringing balance to all of the systems of the body and many areas of our personal lives. The word yoga means “Unite” in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, and the goal of yoga is not to touch your toes or be the most flexible person in the room but to achieve peace and stillness by uniting mind and body. Of course yoga will increase your fitness, flexibility, strength and stamina but theses are in fact pleasant side effects rather than the goal or aim of yoga. We often hear talk of mind, body and soul in relation to yoga but lets look at how this trinity of wellbeing is actually achieved when we become yoga practitioners.
When practised regularly Yoga , Meditation and Pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) bring immediate and lasting peace to those who struggle with stilling the mind and switching off. Too often when we are anxious, stressed or depressed we move out of the body and start to live and operate entirely from our minds. We become disconnected from our physical selves and end up stuck in a loop of negative thinking, anxiety and persistent intrusive thoughts. For many people with mental and emotional struggles it can be a challenge to climb down off the hamster wheel of anxious thought, to break the cycle from the mind where the very problem is originating. When we show up on our mat and practice yoga we connect the mind and body through breath and movement. We move our energy and focus back in to our bodies and give our minds an opportunity to rest and switch off- this is imperative for sound mental and emotional health. With yoga we break the cycle of worry in the mind through use of the physical body in action. Just a few moments of stillness and connection a day can have profound effects of the state of our minds, lives and relationships.
Often people who practise yoga notice emotional release during or after class- it is said that the issues are in the tissues and yoga can address these issues subconsciously and can help us clear out old patterns, habits and behaviours that are holding us back through movement and release. One of the most effective ways to overcome the “monkey mind” as it is known in Yoga, is to practise meditation and pranayama regularly. By consciously connecting to and controlling the breath we achieve balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and this helps combat stress and adrenal fatigue. By slowing the breath we raise carbon dioxide levels in the blood, restore PH levels to their ideal amounts and switch on the parasympathetic nervous system which sends signals to our vagus nerve to lower the heart rate- reducing anxiety and tension. Through mindful relaxation we experience healthy hormonal function and improved focus, clarity and decision making skills. Meditation increases grey matter in the brain and been proven to slow down the ageing process of the brain and improve the functioning of memory. Practising yoga and meditation regularly, reduces cortisol levels in the body and decreases stress levels. Many people hear the word stress and dismiss it as a minor given that we have to live with, but stress is a silent killer responsible for heart disease, high blood pressure and a host of other ailments. With this in mind the value of taking care of ones mind through these daily practises can not be underestimated.
Yoga is a unique physical practise because it moves the body three dimensionally in each anatomical plane, activating every major muscle and engaging the minor muscles less commonly used in every day activities. Yoga is excellent for developing core strength and overall strength rather than focusing on an isolated area as is often the case with many sports and fitness pursuits which can lead to imbalance. Yoga promotes healthy joints and nourishes connective tissues in the body helping to prevent injury. When we move and stretch the body into particular poses (asanas) we are not only increasing strength, flexibility and tone of the muscle but we are also detoxifying the body. It is said in India that yoga is the daily housekeeping needed for the body to function at it’s optimal rate and to ward of disease and illness. One the reasons yoga is so effective when it comes warding off disease and common ailments is the detoxification process and boosted immune response that takes place during a yoga class and long after you have stepped off the mat. A lot of people assume that this detoxification process occurs through sweating and being in a heated room when in fact only 0.02% of toxins are release through sweat. So even if you are a beginner or someone who feels concerned that they will not be prepared for a dynamic practise you will still benefit greatly from yoga in any form.
In yoga we begin the detoxification process through our breathing exercises, we then engage in dynamic movement when we perform the postures- this moves lymphatics fluid around the body, we then practise abdominal twisting postures that target the digestive tract and assist in elimination of toxic waste stored here- these postures also bring fresh blood to the organs housed in the abdominal trunk. Finally we finish our practise with inversions (any posture where the legs are above the head or the head is below the hearts such as headstand downward dog) which helps us move lymph from the legs and lower body towards the chest and upper body where a majority of our lymphatic drainage takes place. These inversions are also excellent for thyroid function and increasing the metabolism. Yoga also switches on the rest and digest process which increases immunity. Practising yoga is an excellent way to promote skeletal health by placing healthy stress on our bones through weight bearing postures- it also greatly improves the functioning and health of the spine. Common lifestyle habits and patterns such as sitting at desks all day, immobility and poor posture put a lot of pressure on our backs especially the lumbar region. Yoga makes the spine supple through movement whilst improving the health of the discs that can cause issues such as prolapse and bulges in over 30% of the population. Back bending postures that promote spinal mobility and health are also excellent for cardiac health- gently stretching the front body increases lung capacity and has been proven to decrease arterial stiffness which is connected to issues such as high blood pressure and other health issues.
Another reasons that so many people keep returning to yoga is that feel good buzz they get after a class- this is due to optimal hormonal and nervous system functioning that comes with practising yoga. Yoga improves respiratory, cardiac, endocrine and immune function. The benefits of yoga from the tips of the toes to the top of the head are profound- If you start practising yoga your body will thank you for it!
The soul is often ignored or undervalued in our society- perhaps because it is not tangible and we are geared to focus on what we can see or feel but for optimal health we must also shine a light on this often neglected area. The soul is simply our spirit, the essence of who we are, and when we tend to it we flourish as individuals. if we can think of the body as an impermanent home to our permanent soul we might finally give both the body and the soul the attention they deserve! Yoga pays attention to both- in the ancient texts of yoga much reference is made to the energetic body known as the pranic body which connects us to our higher selves and leads us towards enlightenment- but what is enlightenment and how is it relevant to a layperson who can barely face the day without a strong coffee and would rather lie in bed than do sun salutations? Striving for enlightenment does not mean running off to a cave to meditate for 12 hours a day- it is simply the act of lightening up as the name suggests! By connecting with ourselves on a deep and authentic level yoga uplifts us and lightens our load. Through a regular yoga practise we can indeed move towards liberation by meeting our authentic self. Aside from the spiritual benefits of connecting with the true self through yoga there is immense value in the act of doing something thats good for you, just for you. People who surf, garden, hike, dance can attest to the value of spending time doing these things for themselves on a regular basis. Spending time doing something you love as a practise of self care is essential for spiritual growth and a healthy soul.
Taking care of our spirit by connecting to ourselves through a regular yoga practise even when we are facing upheaval or chaos fortifies us as to explore who we are as individuals and face our challenges with integrity. Yoga is a channel to connect with our higher and best selves- for some that might mean feeling a bit less road rage on the way to work for others it may mean total emotional transformation. Both are equally valuable because they are relative to the individal. Yoga challenges us and demands that we stretch ourselves not only physically but mentally and emotionally too. One of the most attractive elements of developing a steady and regular yoga practise is the traditional aspect of fostering self discipline. This self discipline means we practise yoga regularly as an ongoing commitment no matter what distractions we face- a regular practise sends a message internally that we are worth the time and energy it takes to show up on our mat and develop a relationship with our inner selves- this is a powerful boost for the soul and our spirit.
The beauty of yoga is that it really is for everybody. In over a decade of working in the field of yoga I am yet to meet someone who could not “do” yoga- every time you show up to your mat, connect with yourself and your body you are achieving in yoga. Many people think they need to be flexible to start yoga which is not true at all- you will become stronger and more flexible by doing yoga but it is not a prerequisite to begin. If you can breathe you can do yoga! A good yoga teacher will work with you as an individual and encourage you to use yourself as a benchmark not your neighbour, they will see the value of your physical abilities as equally valuable as your ability to connect with yourself and they will encourage you to go at your own pace and also challenge yourself. So- are you ready to look after your mind body and soul? If so it’s time to roll out a yoga mat and show up for yourself.
Written By Eveanna de Barra
This article was originally written for and published by HI Magazine Ireland