Let me guess. When you think of yoga, you think of pretzels… people pretzels… beanpole-esque people pretzels in second-skin pants. Yes, indeed- some yogis are tiny, and super flexible, and can school us all in the fast paced, sweat-inducing, cirque du soleil-like regimen that has swept the nation.
But here’s a fun fact: That’s not yoga!
Well…not in the traditional sense anyway. Now hear me out! I love an intense, sweaty vinyasa flow just as much as the next person. When I finally managed to finagle myself into side-crow, you’re damn right I pulled it out as a party trick… on multiple occasions…
But while our westernized version of this thousands-of-years-old practice can be an enjoyable workout, and surely encompasses at least some mind-steadying, zen-inducing benefits— “becoming the pretzel” matters very little on the journey of yoga.
Participating in the traditions of yoga is mostly about balance. No, not balancing on your arms…not balancing on your pinky toe….
The philosophy of yoga is vast. But here are a few concepts that I’ve noticed pair very well with building a healthy lifestyle:
Balancing the Noise
With the smartphones, and the emails, and the media, and the constant need-it-now-ness that pervades our culture, our way of living produces constant brain “noise.” And this is on top of the general brain noise that already exists innately in everyone- i.e. the constant voice-in-your-head, mind-wandering, wonder-what-I’ll-have-for-dinner-tonight type jabber.
Yoga is quieting the “brain noise.” This is essentially a translation of one of the first lines of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (one of the definitive texts of yoga tradition). The meditation branch of yoga- the stillness and the breathing, and working through our “mind-stuff” to find a little focus (and maybe a little enlightenment!) helps us to slow down. It teaches us to be okay with quiet (not an easy task these days), and balances the noise.
Balancing Your Bones (and other structural parts)
Physically speaking, we generally embody a limited number of “poses” throughout the day. We sit or stand or walk- all day. Like getting carpal tunnel from typing for too long, we can cause the same kind of musculoskeletal distress through other repetitive movements.
The physical practice of yoga poses (or asanas) balances us with alternate movement, creating shapes varied from those in which we typically find ourselves, allowing stretch and release of the overworked tissues.
Working toward a particular asana makes for a great metaphor for finding balance off of the mat, too.
Noticing What Needs to be Balanced
Yoga is a personal, individual practice. Sure, you can take a yoga class in a packed room, and jive on the collective energy, but really- it’s just you. On your mat. Working into whatever version of the dictated pose is appropriate for your body. You’ll often hear instructors say- “it’s your practice.” “it’s your choice,” “wherever your body is at TODAY.”
That’s right. Your body is different on a day-to-day basis. Not your hair color, or your height, or the shape of your nose. But dependent on our stress-level, our general health, what we ate yesterday, the other physical activites we’ve engaged in, our mindset, and a multitude of other factors- our bodies feel different. That’s normal. That’s life! And there it is- yoga gives us the opportunity to bring ourselves back to balance.
Balance that Comes with Awareness
Yoga also pairs perfectly with health because it’s all about awareness. It asks us to be aware of what’s going on in our bodies. That’s the whole idea- linking the mind with the body. Getting back in touch, staying in touch, and noticing how you feel, every day.
This can definitely be applied to how we eat. Awareness in yoga has much to do with taking care of ourselves! Being gentle with ourselves. They call it a never-ending practice, because it will constantly change and evolve according to your needs on any given day.
While people tend to be creatures of habit, the body may sometimes be asking you to change it up. It’s easy to get caught up in: “X is healthy for me, I’ll just eat lots of X!” or “I can’t have Y because of its fat/sodium/cholesterol/calorie content.”
The body uses fat, sodium, cholesterol, and most definitely calories, every day. That’s not a green light to go nuts on foods that contain them in large quantities, but it’s just a friendly reminder that these things are not evil. In fact, in balance within the body, they are good and freakin’ necessary!
On the flip side, the body can’t use 8 pounds of spinach, or 19 apples, or 10 yogurts in a day. I exaggerate… but my point is- it’s a balance. It’s moderation- in everything! It’s awareness!
In conclusion, I’m not hating on the pretzel people! I appreciate the marvelous display of what some bodies are capable of! It’s inspiring, and it’s beautiful!
But there is so much more that can be drawn out from the immense “yoga tool kit” and considered in balancing the ways we choose to move through life.