When I invite people to try yoga, I often hear them make judgments and excuses about themselves, yogis and yoga in general. I hear: “I’m not coordinated.” “I’m too fat.” “I don’t have time.” “I’m not flexible.” “I’m too tired.” And my personal favorite, “It’s too woo-woo.” The “I’m too…” list is infinite. I have to tell you that yoga simply doesn’t care about your excuses. Yoga’s not a sport. Yoga doesn’t require you to be an athlete or even athletic. You can practice yoga in your car, at the grocery store and in the middle your wedding. There is really no such thing as being good at yoga.
One of my intentions as a yoga teacher is to help new students evolve their definition of yoga. To expand their understanding of what it really is and how it becomes exactly what we need, at any moment. There is a magic that emerges when we practice. What happens when we surrender? What happens when we listen? Yoga wants to hear the soul speak. It wants to set the mind free and coax it off the hamster wheel.
What yoga wants to hear is often lurking under the surface of perceived physical limitations. Without actually saying it, what people might mean by their excuses is “I can’t trust myself.” “I have self-doubt.” “Someone told me I’m not flexible.” “I’m afraid to fail.” Yoga wants to hear those secret poison tainted whisperings we have floating around in our heads like wisps of smoke. It wants to explore the aches in us we don’t articulate with truth, but we allow our body to grasp with an iron grip. We hang on so tightly to them, that eventually the body can’t handle the load, becomes unbalanced and begins to break down.
In our society, we regard the body as a machine. We push it to its limits daily and if it’s broken, we fix it, often repeating that cycle over and over and over again. What modern Western medicine can fix and cure is truly astounding. These mechanics of health continue to make new innovations in body repair. If you lose an ear, they can grow you a new one! Woah! But there is one malady it can’t cure with pills, lasers, drips, surgery or bandages. Pretty much every adult I know has it, and our children are carriers now more than ever. It manifests as IBS, tension, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, various skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression and anxiety, insomnia, frequent colds and infections, headaches, alcoholism and abuse of tobacco and other drugs. Sadly, it’s an everyday, household word: Stress. The simple truth, stress degrades every part of your body. So what do we do? What ice cube’s chance in hell do we have for surviving this mess we have created? Quite simply, breathe.
We are so devoted to stress that the American Institute of Stress (AIS) was formed. The AIS website, which is pretty neat-o, lists fifty common signs and symptoms of stress right on the home page. “Common”, meaning there are more than those listed. Holy smokes! These other “less appreciated” symptoms affect the organs that keep us upright and functioning. You know those vital systems we take for granted because we can’t see them. We don’t check on them often and regularly push them to the wall, eventually finding ourselves sick and tired of being sick and tired: the respiratory, endocrine, nervous, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal and reproductive systems. For example, you could be eating a balanced nutritious diet, but if you are stressed, your bowels won’t necessarily be able to absorb the nutrients your body needs to function efficiently (think IBS). Stress causes your muscles in your shoulders and neck to tense, a preparation for battle. This tension restricts the blood flow for extended periods of time, leading to chronic muscular pain, headaches, fatigue and can contribute heavily to rheumatoid diseases like arthritis and fibromyalgia. They start to pile up, tipping the body out of balance.
My yoga teacher said once, “If you can breathe, you can do yoga.” Kellie Marksberry, AIS Executive Director, agrees. In a blog post titled Take a Deep Breath, she sums it up: “…there is one ‘Super Stress Buster’ that evokes the relaxation response that we widely recommend as useful for everyone- even kids. Can you guess what it is? BREATHING! That is right, simply breathing. It is free and can be practiced anywhere- I bet you are even breathing right now! The key, of course, is focused breathing.”
So, what does this have to do with Yoga? Everything. Every. Single. Thing. Yoga is not about rolling out a mat in cute yoga pants and jamming your nose between your knees. What comes first, before the poses? We focus on our breath. We have to follow the breath, Baby! In Ashtanga there are eight areas (limbs) of study. The Asana are what is commonly understood as yoga since it represents the actual yoga poses, the physical practice. In addition to Asana, however, we have the ever powerful intentional breathing practice called Pranayama.
Prana-yama. Prana: the breath of life, the spirit or soul, life force, the fire in the belly. Ayama: unrestricted. The unleashing of life-force energy. We commonly use this to describe our breathing practice, with or without, Asana. Depending on your needs it can be subtle, or it can be powerful. The outcome is up to you. It is with breath that we begin to listen. We begin to nurture acceptance for what is and for what isn’t and explore the root of stress in quiet observation. In the breath we can actually hear the rumble and moan of the life force. We begin to remember what calm feels like and when we practice inviting it in, and allowing it to unpack, we leave less and less room for stress. Intentional breathing helps us respectfully pack up the baggage we’ve been lugging around, the stressors we are ready to eliminate. With an inhale we observe them; with an exhale we say good-bye.
So, what makes a “good yoga student”? They listen. They really get quiet and listen to what the body is telling them. They find beauty and peace in the quiet space of nothing between the inhales and exhales. They invite positive change into their lives. They want to nurture self-respect. They want to quiet the screeching monkey-brain. They begin to learn that breath is power and it provides the body space to balance. We could compile another infinite list, but this one is very personal and is inspired by the soul. It comes from a place of acceptance and pure love, gratitude for the abundance we have in this moment, and it comes with no expectations. Body, spirit and mind yoked together in a self-perpetuating cycle of vibrant regeneration and health. Your heart bursts, and your light shines. Yup, all that woo-woo stuff.
I set out to help acknowledge fears and doubts people might have about yoga and to explain briefly why more and more people are turning to the practice. I want you to feel like yoga is waiting at the door for you with an enormous hug, whispering in your ear, “It’s going to be ok.” I hope you feel my invitation to breathe with a little more intention, and too bring your stress to yoga, let it be absorbed by your practice. Pretty much everyone has stress, and everyone I know can breathe, so everyone makes a “good yoga student.” Thoughts are often stress-things. Bring your things to yoga. You don’t need a mat, yoga pants, or pants at all for that matter. No excuses. All you need is breath.