Well, this isn’t a simple question, and certainly not one that can be answered in one blog post. But I will begin to try to answer it with one of the many ways that I believe yoga works, which is also one of my favorite things about yoga.
As you can see in the photo, Bishnu Ghosh (brother of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the famous book Autobiography of a Yogi) said “In the midst of movement and chaos, the practice of asana will generate physical and mental stillness”. So for any of you who are new to the yoga world, true yoga is much, much more than just a bunch of physical exercises and flexibility drills, as it is often perceived in the west. I will get into the full description of true yoga in other posts and in some of my videos, but I mention it today just to clarify that “asana”, as mentioned by Ghosh in the quote, refers to the physical practice of yoga postures, and is one of the 8 limbs of yoga.
So as Ghosh suggests, the physical practice of yoga asana helps us to cultivate mental and physical stillness. If you are anything like me (and most humans, I think), physical and mental stillness haven’t always been very familiar things in your life. It is common, and even encouraged and revered in our culture, to be busy all the time: busy in body, and busy in mind. We rarely take time to cultivate stillness, and if we do, we feel guilty about it, like there is something we should be doing with every second of every day. And this incessant busy-ness can send us into a whirlwind of chronic stress, that strains our bodies and minds, and can even contribute to serious illness (see my workshop video on stress and the nervous system if the details of this interest you).
Yoga practice trains us, in body and mind, to handle difficult situations with ease and equanimity, and to be able to find that still, calm place inside of us despite all circumstances. And it is from that place of stillness and calm that we can best operate in the world, making decisions and acting from a place of love and truth, rather than from a place of stress, emotion, and reactive behavior patterns.
Life naturally presents difficult situations all the time, right? It’s just the way life is. We lose our jobs, get divorced, lose loved ones, and even get diagnosed with cancer occasionally. And the smaller stressors happen even more frequently. We get cut off in traffic, someone steals our smart phone, you get the wrong food order at take-out, your kid struggles at school, your chemo gets delayed because of a screw up at the pharmacy or because your labs aren’t quite up to snuff. So when we are in that whirlwind of chronic stress and busy-ness, it is our tendency to react to these sorts of stressors emotionally, and sometimes in very maladaptive ways. This leaves us acting in ways that aren’t always in the best interest of ourselves or those around us, and that makes all of us suffer even more than the original experience itself would have. Don’t get me wrong, it sucks when some of these difficult things happen, but allowing them to wreck your mental and physical well being is a choice. So how can we learn to respond more mindfully and cultivate healthier coping mechanisms?
Well this is where yoga comes in. So one of my favorite things about yoga asana practice is so simple, yet so powerful. When we practice physical asana, our bodies and minds are placed into difficult circumstances (for example, standing in warrior II position for 10 breaths can really start to burn in that front leg quadriceps muscle and get pretty uncomfortable). It might be our first reaction to say “geez, I can’t stay here any longer! It feels like my quad is going to spontaneously combust”. But our practice trains us to come back to our calm, slow, rhythmic breath, finding again that place of stillness, each time we think we are about to lose it. And instead of falling down the wormhole of panic and hysteria, we harness the power of our breath, and come back. This practice creates a positive cycle of calming/relaxing signals between your brain and your body (see again the Stress and the Nervous system video for more detail on how this works). You learn that you could indeed hold that pose, how good it feels to do so calmly, and your body becomes healthier at the same time. After just a short while practicing, it becomes easier and easier to find and stay in that place of stillness, despite all of the difficult positions you place yourself in, and eventually you start to return to that place naturally, without even consciously trying. Even more importantly, the training then starts to show up in the way you react to things outside the yoga room. When you are made to wait a long time at the lab to have your blood drawn, you take a deep breath, and use the opportunity for a little stillness practice, instead of getting angry. I mean, I doubt if the lab personnel are back there screwing around just to make you wait. So why throw a fit and chew out the poor girl at the front desk? They might be busy and overworked, and could use a little kindness from you. Eventually you will notice that even the way you react to bigger challenges grows and changes in positive ways. As TKV Desikachar said “The success of yoga lies not in the ability to perform postures, but in how it positively changes the way we live our lives and our relationships”. Who doesn’t want that kind of positive change??
Being diagnosed with breast cancer and navigating breast cancer treatment was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. But I really believe my yoga practice helped train me to handle it with as much ease and equanimity as possible. I’m not going to lie, I still freak out from time to time when fears or frustrations hit. But with the help of yoga, I can quickly regain my balance, come back to my happy place, and get on with my life.
Give yoga a try, and see how it helps you.
photo credit Josef Kandoll Wepplo