You may have opened up your Instagram account have seen lovely pictures of yogis demonstrating their talents with dynamic poses and sequences. Yoga has certainly made its way into the mainstream in recent years and many are jumping on the band wagon to take advantage of what yoga has to offer. But is yoga just about posing in front of a camera showing off your handstand, splits, or leg extension? We all know that it's not. And to give credit where credit is due....there are fantastic yoga instructors and practitioners out there. Some of which are posting pictures and videos of themselves online. They clearly have done the appropriate work and have devoted their time to this art and practice. But we want to make sure that a clear message is sent to those that are new to yoga. The practice and lifestyle of yoga is not just about the perfect posture, it’s about creating a deeper connection and awareness of ourselves. As the appreciation of Self develops, that deeper awareness also becomes an outward expression: a strengthened appreciation, feelings of gratitude, and awareness of others.
The lovely photos we see on the internet capture one aspect of the yoga philosophy: asana - the physical body holding and moving through various postures. When someone decides to begin a yoga practice, they often are going because they want to gain more flexibility in their hamstrings or improve their balance. They have heard that yoga can help with that; and indeed it does. Some of the benefits of yoga reveal themselves physically: greater flexibility, strength, and balance, for example. Further, these are often measurable benefits. One notices when they are more flexible. "Oh, look! I can touch my toes!" One sees signs of new strength in their body. "My core is so strong now!" These are the types of images that we might see online, too. The photos depict that small fraction of what the whole yoga experience can fully deliver. But to reiterate, there is more to yoga than the physicality and the visual benefits of the practice.
Going beyond the physical entails something that some may call the "intangibles." These are the benefits of yoga that are not as easily measured or seen with the naked eye (like six pack abs when you look in the mirror.) They are comprised of happiness, joy, appreciation, gratitude, mindfulness, well being, patience, and the list goes on. There are probably methods for measuring these benefits (like psychological testing), but these "intangible" outcomes of yoga emerge because someone took the time and effort to engage in the physical practice first.
Early teachers and philosophers of this practice determined that the best way to access the mind is through the body. Some of them even said, "just practice, don't worry about the rest." We are very aware of our bodies; it's a physical entity. We notice some bloating when we've eaten too much. We notice a fever when we have the flu. We notice the pain when we've sprained an ankle. Yoga works in the same way. As we introduce the body to these new physical postures, we become more aware of the body. The awareness is greater because these are body positions that we are not used to doing on a daily basis. We really don't take notice of our bodies when we are simply sitting on the sofa enjoying a television program. But when we are actively engaged in Chair Pose in a yoga class...that brings a whole new set of insight to the body. Being "aware" is one of those "intangibles."
Awareness is just another way to say that you're paying very close attention to one thing. It is so easy to get distracted in our day-to-day living; there is so much going on around us. How can one relax and pay attention when we are drawn to so many things all at the same time? It really takes effort to stop what you're doing to pay attention to one thing. Doing yoga is helping us practice do just that: to stop and pay attention. One of the things you are taught to pay attention to while practicing yoga is the breath. While sitting on the couch watching television, you're obviously breathing, but you're not really paying attention to it. Yoga is designed to have you pay closer attention to the breath - deep breaths. It takes your full attention to take a deep breath. Doing this draws your focus inward. Furthermore, slow deep breaths also have a physiological effect on the mind and body; slowing down the pace of the breath is attributed to slowing down your heart rate, lowering your blood pressure, and essentially calming you down.
The breath is connected to the yoga posture; they have a relationship that goes hand-in-hand in order for a person to experience a physical, mental, and emotional shift. As mentioned, the physical shift is something that might be noticed first. But as the practitioner continues to return to the yoga mat and attempts the various poses, these other shifts begin to take place. Yoga postures are so different from other bodily postures we normally move into. (That's probably why we see the photographs of yogis in these different postures, because they are so different from the norm.) These poses, though, can sometimes be challenging - difficult to attempt and achieve; and it takes a lot of practice. But as the yogi focuses on the calming breath in each of these positions, a sense of ease settles into the body AND mind.
These challenging poses are a reflection of the obstacles we face in our lives. When we come to the yoga mat, we have an opportunity to face those challenges head on. While each pose may represent a struggle we're dealing with in life, the practice has given us tools to deal with those problems. The calming breath delivers a peace to the challenging yoga posture thereby making them approachable and easier to manage. The same lessons can be applied to our off-the-mat life experiences. When we are faced with the challenges of life, we can turn to the breath - we can turn inward to bring peace to our circumstances.
With a steady and consistent yoga practice, that sense of awareness increases and continues to spread to other factors in your life. You'll become more connected to your own emotions and feelings. There will be a greater sense of gratitude when you receive help from another person. You'll be more connected to your partner's feelings when they've had a hard day. These are just a few things you can experience with your dedication and devotion to yoga. You'll learn and experience that the asanas (the postures) are directly related to becoming more in tuned with your whole Self.....not just a pretty picture on Instagram.