There is more to yoga than bending yourself to look like a pretzel
Teaching yoga in the Caribbean was definitely not part of my five-year plan. If someone had prophesied my future and told me this would be the case, I would have thought they were out of their mind.
I didn't necessarily have anything against yoga, I just thought it was only accessible to super skinny, bendy people with spirit names - people who were "like super zen and totally chill." I didn't feel that I was flexible enough to do the poses, nor calm enough to sit in meditation for any longer than five seconds. I think a lot of people share this mentality, which compares to someone feeling they are too dirty to take a shower, or too sick to go to the doctor.
The only reason I tried yoga is because my therapist suggested it at a time when I honestly would have tried anything to make myself feel better. He told me to start small and he recommended one of his favorite YouTube teachers, Adriene. The first sequence I ever did was her short 8-minute morning practice. I wasn't hooked right away or anything. I actually thought it was too slow and I felt like I wasn't "doing anything." For some reason I was curious enough to sign up for a Yoga Rookie Basics 8-week course at a local studio where my friend was teaching. I don't know why, I just kept showing up, wanting to learn more.
Everyone gets drawn to yoga for different reasons, and the psychological and philosophical components were major parts of the attraction for me. I knew that this practice could help ease the fluctuations of the mind and that was VERY appealing to me ... because my mind was VERY fluctuative* (<--*not a real word). Seriously. I was a maniac.
I have learned that there is so much more to yoga than moving the body and bending yourself in to a pretzel shape. The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yug, which means “to join together” or “to yoke.” It is about integration. Asana - the Sanskrit word for posture - is just one of the eight limbs of yoga; it is the bodily aspect of the integration process, while pranayama is the breath regulation piece.
The poses and breathwork have many positive effects on the body: improving circulation and easing the nervous system; promoting function of joints, limbs, and muscles; and revitalizing glands and vital organs. With that said, the practice of yoga as a whole is actually more concerned with the inner being.
Several thousands of years ago, yoga was not at all an exercise system. The original poses were developed to hold the body in a way to prolong immobility. The postures designed by the old masters were based on observing the movements of animals. They became aware that animals have the capacity to relax completely and to remain motionless with perfect ease – this is why many of the poses have names like cobra, cow, locust, etc.
Asana is a preparation for the mind and body to sit still for long periods of a time, as steadily and effortlessly as possible, in order to bring about mental calmness so that one can work toward seeing things as they actually are - vidya. This sense of awareness is a method to alleviate human suffering caused by avidya - "not seeing," which leads to misunderstanding one's true nature.
Yoga is a practice, meaning you PRACTICE it. It isn’t about being perfect or being good at the poses right away. Any practice in life is about repetition and discipline – abhyasa – and this is how one prevails over their mind and emotions.
I still consider myself a rookie and a beginner. My heels don't touch the ground in down dog (see photo above) and I can't do a handstand or a headstand. Half moon pose is a real challenge and so is crow! I don't know the Sanskrit names for all of the poses and I am still learning every day.
I highly recommend this book which translates the Yoga Sutra, one of the most influential spiritual documents of all time, written about two to three thousand years ago in India. The aphorisms provide an analysis of why we suffer and how to use self-awareness to achieve freedom.
There is much to be explored in this realm and each of the eight limbs of yoga can be used as a prescription to healing. For the sake of brevity I will bring this post to a close, but if you are interested in learning more, please please please let me know! I am so here for it.
Here's to seeing things as they truly are,
Hartnett, Chip. (2003). The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary. Boulder: Shambala Publications, Inc.
Taylor, Renee. (1969). The Hunza-Yoga Way to Health and Longer Life. New York: Constellation International.