It’s Saturday morning. You get your yoga mat and head to the gym to enjoy your weekly yoga class. This is one of your favorite weekly rituals, as yoga is one of your favorite forms of exercise. You enjoy its slow movements, the deep stretches, and how peaceful you feel after your class. This type of exercise makes your body (and mind) feel amazing in a way that no other exercise does.
Yoga is probably one of the oldest forms of “exercise” out there, though the whole practice of yoga goes beyond simply making your body stronger….it’s meant to make all of you stronger (mind, body, spirit).
“Really?” I can hear you thinking, as your wrinkle your nose, wondering if I’ve had one too many glasses of the yoga Kool-Aid.
No, really guys. Yoga is probably (in my opinion, at least) one of the best things you can do for yourself to help you be comfortable and at peace in your own skin. It helps you find a sense of calm, self awareness, and the incredible possibilities of your body. Yoga may be offered as an exercise class at many gyms, but what yoga does for you goes way, way, way beyond exercise.
But, don’t take my word for it. I’m certainly not an expert on the matter. However, I’m pretty tight with someone who is. My mother-in-law, Valerie Forde-Galvin, has been practicing yoga for over 40 years and teaching others how to reap it’s benefits for over 30. She is probably one of the wisest, most qualified, and well-versed people I could find on this subject…and I am just lucky enough to be able to call her family. The following are her words, ideas, and teachings on how yoga transcends exercise and is, in fact, an experience for the body on every level.
Yoga addresses body, mind, and spirit. It’s a complete system of physical, emotional, and spiritual development, the original holistic method dating back five thousand years. The science of yoga began to evolve as the ancients investigated the essential nature of life, how to live in balance and harmony with the universe. From its early beginnings yoga offered a healthy and balanced approach, a way of life that connected body, mind and spirit. It was then, as it is now, all about awareness.
My best teacher, Josef, had this question he always asked at a particular time in the class when he brought us up from our floor work to standing. It was a simple question. Josef would ask us, “Where are your feet? Are they standing on the floor?” Invariably at least half the class would look down and check their feet. He would laugh and then we’d get it. He was pointing out the fact that our attention was in our heads rather in our bodies, showing us the difference between thinking about the feet and experiencing the feet.
When we get out of touch with the body, we’re ruled by our heads and the constant churning of the mind. At these times we can feel alienated, disconnected, stressed, and ill at ease. Yoga helps us to overcome this lack of awareness, to reconnect, and establish equanimity.
Yoga teaches us to become more aware of how we move. . . and not just “on the mat”. How do you reach for something on the shelf? How do you bend to pick up something from the floor? Is the action strained or do you move with ease? When you get in touch with your body and your breath, you naturally find yourself moving easier. As the breath flows, movement flows. This is the essence of yoga.
Remember that your body is your true teacher. Let the movement come from within. Let it flow effortlessly throughout your body. If you doubt this approach, may I direct you to the source. In a translation of the sutras by Rama Prasad, “effortless attitude” and a “loosening of effort through attention” are the suggested means of learning postures. My discovery of these passages has confirmed my initial belief that striving to achieve has never been the intent of yoga practice. Strain and effort are contrary to the body’s nature. We were designed to move easily. Through yoga we rediscover that sense of ease.
3. As in yoga, so in life
Yoga is not just about doing postures. The practice of yoga allows us to move through life effortlessly. But what are we do to when faced with some obstacle? How do we deal with life’s many challenges? Consider this example from yoga practice. As you are moving into a posture, yoga teaches you not to push beyond the resistance. Instead you might stop and observe that sense of holding back, that strong sensation. Where in the body is that sense of holding? What does it feel like? How might it respond to the breath? You stay with it for while, breathing deeply into that space, allowing time for the the resistance to ease. Slowly the sensations change; the area of tension softens, releases. And so you can move on, relaxing deeper into the posture.
Likewise, out there in the world we often meet with resistance. . . in our jobs, in our relationships with others, in various situations. In life, as in yoga, we learn from the resistance. We observe that sense of holding back, of opposition or challenge. We breathe deeply and allow it some space. Eventually something changes. . . in ourselves, or in others, or in the situation. And we can move on.
Yoga teaches us to become more aware of the breath. Take a breath in through your nose and then gently sigh out the breath through your mouth. Do this again. How do you feel? Breath, body, and mind are closely connected and so one affects the other. As your breathing quiets down, you might observe areas of your body beginning to relax. Maybe your shoulders drop a little. Your face softens a bit. As breath flows through your nose and throat, you might sense this area softening and becoming more open to the breath. Breath flows easily through your nose and throat. Tracing the breath down into the lungs now, you can sense the lungs gently filling and emptying. You might even feel
the rib cage relaxing all around the lungs. The rib cage softens and you can feel the movement of breath here, gentle expansion and contraction. Now, as you relax the area below the lungs, you sense the abdomen softening. Any tension in the abdomen is released and you’re breathing deeply into the belly.
Slow deep breathing relaxes your body. When your body is relaxed, your mind quiets down. Gradually you find that you’re able to let go of those anxious thoughts. Most of our thinking involves something that happened in the past or that might happen in the future. Too often we allow ourselves to be ruled by our past conditioning. We see the world only through the limited and biased perceptions of our mind. We shape our reality out of the past and lose sight of the present. But the past is over and the future is unknowable. Only the present is real. Through our yoga practice we learn to be aware of each moment, to be fully present. As we immerse ourselves in the moment-to-moment experience of living, we can trust in the wisdom of the body to guide us. Take a breath and let go. Allow this moment to be tranquil and serene. Peace above, peace below, peace all around, and peace within.
Valerie has been studying and practicing yoga and related disciplines for over 40 years. A mother of eight, she has a Master’s degree in psychotherapy and certifications in Integrative Yoga Therapy and Creative Stress Management. For the past thirty years she has taught yoga and meditation classes throughout New England and led retreats in Mexico. During each spring and fall, Valerie offers her “Awakening the Inner Healer” workshop. The focus of her teaching is living consciously and opening to inner wisdom.
“By working with the body and the breath it is possible to release the physical and emotional tensions that inhibit the full expression of the self. Through the divine dance of Yoga, we discover our unlimited potential for joy and fulfillment.” . . . . . . . .. . . . .Valerie Forde-Galvin