The Ancient Practice of Yoga: A New Trend
Walking through town the other evening, I was gazing into a new exercise facility still under construction. I was reading about what they were going to offer that made their place unique. I am a fan of bodies in motion, so if this theory of exercise motivated people to move and condition, then bravo. This spurred personal reflection of my own evolution of movement and fitness. Now that I have a few years under my belt, I can think back to trends and fitness crazes that have come and gone. Remember, “ feel the burn”? I mean God bless Jane Fonda, but my “feel the burn” days are behind me. I prefer to listen to the sensations my body is sending me and adjust according. I remember Calanetics, truly aging myself with that memory. It was a precursor to Barre classes. As a ballet student, I have certainly spent years at the barre. But, when I took a barre class, I realized it was different than a ballet barre class. I definitely worked hard, but a very different experience. When I was a dancer, Pilates was the warm-up for my dance day 6 days per week. My 8–hour schedule was definitely a grueling one, but I learned how to care for the physical body. My post dance journey ran the gamut of experiences: aerobics, step classes, weight lifting, running, Calanetics, barre, and then yoga. My first yoga class was extremely challenging and yet I am sure I heard the “Hallelujah” chorus. Nothing had forced me to use the mind body connection like that before. I had also never sweat that much before. I was hooked. It took me a few months to realize that although I had showed up to my first class for the physicality of the practice, I stayed for many other reasons.
What made this practice so different? Thanks to shows like Think Tank and the ingenuity of many entrepreneurial people, there are always new exercise trends to grab our attention. Many are wonderful, and science has greatly influenced exercise trends and methods. I am sure someday, there will be a system invented that will condition the whole body in 5 minutes! Some of these new methods of exercise last and some come on the scene with gusto only to fizzle out when another idea comes along. So why has yoga lasted since the ancient world? Simply, yoga addresses the mind, body, and heart. Yoga pre-dates the written word. Meditation and Pranayama (breathing exercises) came long before the physical postures (asana). In fact, the asana practice was to tire the body so the practitioner could settle their body and mind for meditation. Most of us come to yoga for the physical practice first, and then delve into breath and meditation practices for those life-changing benefits.
We have probably all heard how meditation can alter our blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels, but recent studies have shown the mental benefits can be measured. Harvard studies have shown that the changes to the Amygdala and Hippocampus can actually be calculated. Giving scientific proof to the health benefits of the mental practices of yoga. Breath is our life force; when it is ineffective we become very ill. Dr. Greg Nash, a chiropractor at Gainesville Holistic Health Center, explains the profound effect of the breath on our brain. “The brain and spinal cord make up our central nervous system (CNS) and are our primary control center. Breathing is important for all the obvious reasons, but it also has profound impacts on the CNS. The CNS has it’s own specialized circulatory system that consists of cerebral-spinal fluid (CSF) that is made by filtering blood. This filtering process creates a rhythmic flow of CSF that bathes the brain and spinal cord. Breathing plays a very important role in this flow. The act of contracting the diaphragm, the primary respiratory muscle, helps to drive the flow of cerebral fluid throughout the CNS. Thus taking control and consciously controlling breathing can help encourage the flow of CSF throughout the CNS, and have profound affects on the body as a whole.”
When a person comes to a yoga class, the instructor will encourage the student to use Ujjayii breath. This deep diaphragmatic breath is to be linked with the movement of the poses. This union calms the body because of the important connection with the CNS, gives the mind a focal point, and aids the practitioner to develop the skill of listening to the body’s communication. There are moments in a led class when as a practitioner you can get lost in the flow of your breath and postures; staying completely in the present moment and losing the idea of time. When this happens, you feel the magic.
Presence and calm become the first gifts that sneak into your life. Before you know it, you will start to take deep diaphragmatic breaths when you are in traffic, or waiting in a line. Your body just responds without a conscious thought because you have trained yourself to respond to stress this way. You will start to notice becoming very present in your conversations and start to notice that others are not. They are half listening while formulating their response to you or they are looking around the room. It isn’t meant to be insulting; their mind is simply fragmented. You know when you are with someone who makes eye contact and is completely engaged in conversation with you. It is a powerful skill that will change your relationships. These skills of calming and focusing bring you quality of life. A little farther down the road, you will see others being caught in a tornado of trauma. It is overwhelming for them and they are relaying the situation to you. Suddenly, you will become acutely aware that you are not getting sucked into the tornado with them. You can see the forest for the trees even when they can’t. The result is that you can give sage advice and listen intently without the emotional involvement. At that moment you will know that yoga is making a remarkable impression on your life.
A consistent yoga practice will cause you to seek and recognize authenticity. This is a deeper benefit of stepping onto your mat. We all wear masks of some sort. We may have given ourselves a mask or a mask may have been given to us and we wear it. For instance, are you the easy child in your family, or the funny or perfect one? I was the perfect child; a straight A skinny ballerina studying at a prestigious dance school. I willingly wore that mask and labored to keep it. Whatever your mask, the expectation was placed on you and you picked it up and carry it forward. Most of the time we are unaware of these burdens, but after consistent practice, we feel the weight of the mask because it is not authentic to our nature. Soon, we can no longer ignore our true nature and the imbalance becomes blatantly obvious to us. The need to align with the song of our heart becomes necessary. We make changes, listen to our inner voice, learn who we really are, and live in truth. The freedom in living an authentic life brings alignment and balance. Most importantly we are truer in our relationships with others giving them the freedom to drop their masks in a safe environment.
Yoga has a history in the Ancient World with archaeological evidence found in stone seals, which depict figures of yoga poses, around 3000 B.C. Since it predated the writing word the yogic principles were passed from teacher to teacher. The richness of that tutelage has kept yoga alive for many millennia. There have been many disciplines of yoga created to meet the interests and needs of cultures and societies. However, the basics of breath, postures, meditation and principles remain untouched. The style of yoga a person chooses can be based upon their physical needs or desires. You can find classes for Restorative yoga, Yin yoga, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and many more. The discipline you choose should be taught by an instructor that is in constant pursuit of knowledge. They should always be in some form of training or mentorship. Some practices use heat and others do not add heat to the environment. That also depends on the practitioner’s preference.
Going back to the origins of yoga, the climate was extremely warm by nature. Dr. Greg Nash says this about the heat, “Temperature is very important in all mammals. Being warm-blooded means that the body has a specific range of temperatures that allow the proteins of that organism to work. Our bodies work very hard to maintain a stable temperature. Thus, exposing the body to varied temperatures causes it to react. In cases of elevated temperature, we begin to sweat and when that liquid evaporates off our skin, our temperature reduces. Humans have several methods for excreting things from our body; the bowel and bladder are the most common. In times of sickness, we can also vomit, cough and sneeze. While exercising the skin acts as a method of excreting unwanted substances and helps to purge the body on a large scale due to the large surface area. Therefore exercising in warmer temperatures causes the body to sweat more easily, and triggers this excretory affect intentionally.” Whether you choose a heated practice or a non- heated practice be mindful that you are not in a draft. We should sweat when we exercise in order to cleanse our body of impurities and to cool our internal temperature. Exercise of any kind should never be done in direct contact with fans or air conditioners. It is simply unhealthy for your muscles. If your gym uses lower temperatures, wear warmer clothing. Sweat is good. Sweating is healthy.
Some people have a strong reaction to yoga after their first class. For others, it takes time for the practitioner to feel the changes happening. On the most basic level, yoga allows you to do what you love to do, longer. The pure physical practice of yoga improves your health, flexibility, stabilizing muscles, and overall tone. Emotionally, it will give you tools for dealing with stress and stressful situations. Yoga will bring balance to your life and relationships. For thousands of years yoga has met the needs of human beings. It is not a fad and is going to be around long after this yogini has left this world. May you be safe, may you be healthy, may you find freedom, know peace, and walk this world with ease. Namaste!