The power of yoga is awareness

Yoga pose

Life has been good the last few months. Although I still have all of my usual challenges (plus a few sometimes), I continue to feel better and better about my life, about  myself, and about the way things are going. I have more energy. I feel stronger (emotionally and mentally). Opportunities keep appearing and things keep falling into place at just the right time.

As much as I am enjoying this shift, I keep noticing myself anxiously trying to pinpoint the reason behind this change. After all, if I know what is causing this improvement now, I’ll know how to hang onto it and/or repeat it in the future.

But it hasn’t been all that easy to locate the magical key to this shift I’m experiencing. For one thing, there are so many small changes I’ve made to my self-talk, my habits, my attitude, and my self care. Any or all of these things could be the cause of this shift. It’s been a positive cycle for me where each small shift makes room for another shift which makes room for yet another shift in an ever-increasing spiral of growth.

However, I did uncover one change I made that very well may be the foundation for all of the rest. I realized the other day that I started teaching yoga right after the start of the year, and that roughly coincides with the time when things started moving in a more positive direction. This may not sound like a big deal, but the discipline of teaching yoga has been the accountability I needed to re-engage in my own regular practice of yoga.

As I’ve pondered the possibility that a regular practice of yoga could the foundation for this positive spiral I’m experiencing, I have gone back to think about times in the past when I have had a regular yoga practice and times when I have not. To the best of my recollection, every time period where I have maintained a regular yoga practice has been a much more positive period of my life. Those times when I have neglected a regular practice have not been nearly as positive or as stable.

This is very interesting to me. You’d think that I would already have been aware of this connection since I am a yoga teacher. Clearly I see the benefits of yoga in my life or I wouldn’t have taken the time, money, and effort to become a certified teacher. And yet, the degree to which this is true in my life took me completely by surprise.

In this case, at least, it’s clear that there have many other choices and changes that I have made that have contributed to my current positive state, but I am also convinced that yoga provided the foundation that made all of those other choices and changes possible. The practice of yoga does so much to reconnect me to my body and to bring me back into the present moment. Although I’m sure the extra physical activity from the asanas helps, it’s truly the power of being present to my body and its wisdom and being present in the here and now that is such a transformative practice for me.

This awareness of the impact it’s had in my own life leaves me feeling ever more grateful that I have the opportunity and the honor to share this practice with others in my classes. I hear so many people say that yoga is not for them because they are not flexible enough (or strong enough or thin enough or whatever their excuse is), but it’s the awareness yoga brings that matters. Find a style of yoga or a teacher that resonates with you and give it try. You just might be as surprised as I am at what happens!

Yoga for preventing tension headaches

I carry my stress in my shoulders. I have knots in my upper back that drive massage therapists crazy. And they cause me a good deal of aches and pains, including headaches, from my poor posture, tight muscles, and held tension.

I’m not alone in this. Most people I know carry tension in their shoulders, upper back, and necks. It’s an epidemic in our stressed-out, computer-focused society. This tension we carry around with us causes all kinds of aches and pain, with tension headaches high on the list.

Yoga is great way to become more mindful of the state of our body, so we can begin to recognize this tension happening before the headaches start. It’s also a wonderful training ground for learning better posture and for reducing our tendency to carry the tension around in the first place as we learn to let go.

I recently came across a wonderful article on specific ways that yoga can help with the prevention of tension headaches called Crick Fixes by Barbara Benagh in the online Yoga Journal. She shares her own story of neck, shoulder, and back issues and the way that she learned to use yoga to help remedy those issues after working with a teacher who “focused less on actively changing your body than on establishing a compassionate dialogue with it, inviting health and ease into it and then watching, waiting, and allowing change to come.”

The last page of the article (there are five pages altogether) contains a link to her Crick Fixes Asana Sequence that contains pictures and instructions for working through the sequence she developed and mentions in her article.

If you suffer from neck and shoulder tension and/or from tension headaches, I would encourage you to take a look at this gentle sequence and give it a try. There are ten poses altogether (one per page), and each one is easy to perform and well described in her instructions and pictures.

If you decide to try it, let me know how it works for you. I’ll be trying this one out right alongside you, so I’d love to hear what you think!

Energizing a yoga class

I had the privilege to be the substitute teacher for an undergraduate level yoga class at IUPUI yesterday afternoon. This is a half-semester class, and yesterday was the second time the class had met. The surprise of having a substitute teacher seemed to disorient many of the students as we started the class time by moving all of the desks and chairs out of the way to make space on the floor for our yoga class.

The fact that we were starting at 3:00 pm when everyone seemed to be in their afternoon energy slump probably didn’t help their lack of enthusiasm any. As we went through the centering and warm-up portions of the class, that lack of enthusiasm was almost palpable. So before we headed into our sun salutations, I led through several rounds of the Breath of Joy.

The looks on people’s faces as I explained it were rather comical; they ranged from skeptical to downright disbelieving. Fortunately, everyone gave it try. After several of these breaths, I was no longer leading them through them, they were moving into each new breath on their own. When we stopped, I looked around the room, and every single person was smiling—some with big grins verging on laughter, some with small grins that seemed to be escaping their attempts to suppress them—but they were ALL smiling. I pointed that out to them, and they looked at one another with surprise and not a few laughs.

The energy shift this brought to the class lasted throughout the rest of our practice. As a group, the feeling shifted from lethargy to interest and enthusiasm. And I’ve never been so mobbed with people asking questions and sharing their excitement about a class as I was at the end of our session when we were putting the desks and chairs back in place. In fact, four people came up to tell me (with surprised but sheepish delight) that they’d fallen asleep in savasana!

Yesterday was the first time I’ve ever included that breath in a yoga class, but it definitely will not be my last. What a simple way to energize a group who is having a hard time getting focused!

And if you haven’t yet tried this breath for yourself when you need a bit of energy, I encourage you to give it shot. The instructions are simple, and the energy boost is wonderful. I bet you’ll find yourself smiling after a few rounds too.

Yoga for strength training too

I was talking to someone yesterday who is trying to find a good exercise program that fits her life so that she will practice it consistently. Knowing that I am a yoga teacher, she was asking me about yoga. As we talking, she asked me whether yoga could be used to build strength. The answer, of course, is yes. There are plenty of poses that require a lot of strength (headstands, arm balances, the warrior poses) and practicing these postures will build strength in practitioners over time.

The thing that really struck me in the conversation, however, is how often people come to yoga with a preconceived notion of what yoga can do for them. One of the most common ones I hear is that yoga is only for flexible people, and it only helps improve people’s flexibility. The truth is that while it does improve flexibility, it also builds strength, and improves posture, and stills the mind, and improves breathing, and deepens meditation, and can bring physical and emotional healing.

With as many different styles of yoga available today, it is possible for everyone to find one that emphasizes whatever particular benefit that they are looking for—from strength to endurance to flexibility to spirituality.

It’s the only “fitness” activity I’ve ever tried that continues to deepen my understanding of myself and of how it can benefit me the longer I try it. I won’t claim that it can do everything—there are still many reasons to incorporate other activities into our fitness and wellness routines—but it is definitely one of those practices that is more on the inside as one begins to practice it than it appears to be on the outside.

Do you know where your body is?

That sounds like such a silly question. Of course we all know where our bodies are! Except for the rare out-of-body experiences, we are stuck in our bodies all the time in this life.

And yet, most of us spend so much time in our heads that we often aren’t really as aware of what our bodies are doing as you might think we are. How often are you really conscious of your posture? Are you truly sitting properly in this moment? Are your ears in alignment with your shoulders?

The more I practice yoga, the greater my body awareness has become over time. And yet, I will still sometimes practice a posture in front of a mirror and discover that my body is not doing the posture the way I had thought it was.

I may think I’m performing janu sirsasana (head-to-knee pose) with a flat back until I see in the mirror that I am unknowingly curving my spine forward in the attempt to get closer to my legs. I may think I’m keeping both sides of my torso long and flat in trikonasana (triangle pose) until the mirror—or a photograph—shows me how much much my ribs are curving. These are just two recent examples of things I have discovered that told me that my perception of where my body was and where my body really was didn’t match up.

I see this with my students as I teach sometimes too. I may offer verbal cues about a posture to encourage a student to perform it with greater safety, but it becomes clear that the student thinks they are doing exactly what I am telling them when they are not. Sometimes a gentle touch to assist the student can help when words do not, and sometimes it just takes time for the body understanding to grow. I am still growing in my own body awareness after all these years as I continue to show up on the mat.

This increased body awareness is one of the many gifts of yoga as we come to greater awareness of how we are truly holding and moving our bodies and a greater understanding of how we can improve the ways we hold and move our bodies to maximize our strength and alignment. The next time you are on the mat, see if you can bring a heightened level of awareness to your body. Notice how you are holding your body in each posture. Focus on the ways that you are moving. You may be surprised at what you learn!