Sweat dries up, your breathing slows, cool air rushes across your face. You leave the room, rug in hand, with a giddy smile. “Good class” you think. Reaching for your shoes, your mind slowly begins to wake up. The yoga high still reigns supreme and you can’t help but feel good. That’s why you practice.
Yoga is not like other sports. It’s different from the gym and, in some intangible way, different from everything else we do. The practice physically kicks your ass. However, it does something even more to your mind. You may not be able to identify it exactly, but after a good class, you know what I mean.
New students frequently come to my class to get a “Yoga Glutes.” Seriously, that’s what they say. We live in a material culture, and as the iconic singer said, “I’m a material girl.” In my case it would be a material “child” (or old depending on how you look at it).
In our externally dominated culture, this is the impetus to practice. The methods, terminology and goals of yoga have changed. What used to be a spiritual tradition is now a training. The classic definition, “stopping the fluctuations of the mind” (yes, that’s the actual definition of yoga), has become some form of physical skill. We are no longer judged by the clarity of our peace of mind, but by the double joint of our elbows. Put your legs behind your head and balance on your hands: Poof, you’re a yoga master.
With yoga so externalized and the tradition so sadly lost, why am I writing an article about the positive effects of the practice on the body and mind? The answer is simple. Yoga still works…and it works in ways that many students never realize.
What we now call yoga, meaning yoga postures or poses, are traditionally called asanas. A Sanskrit word defined as a “comfortable and stable posture”. Short definition, huh? Interestingly, nothing in this definition suggests putting your foot behind your head or balancing on one arm. If you are the type of person who likes to see things for yourself, take a look at the classic Yoga Sutras. There are about a hundred English translations. This definition is straightforward, but so far removed from what we practice today that it takes some creative writing to make the two blend together.
In days gone by, yoga was solely a spiritual practice. There was no worry about getting a yoga butt. In fact, it is a bit incorrect to even call yoga a practice. Traditionally, yoga was not something done, but something to be achieved. The term yoga was intended to describe a state of calm bliss that could be achieved through a specific method. You worked hard in your practice to develop the yoga experience. And with the definition of “stability of mind and emotion”, it seems that yoga would be a very good thing to experience. I can’t even count how many times my mind has wandered while writing this short paragraph. Constant calm sounds wonderful.
Every morning before sunrise, I open the doors to the yoga center, turn up the temperature to 100 Fahrenheit, and welcome the students to another morning practice. The class is hot and it’s hard. Sweat builds up quickly. Groans and sighs echo from every corner. Pick up here; push there; forward lean; more weight on the toes. This is a great exercise. These students are getting in shape. For just over an hour, this group of students is pushed and goaded into a world of continual challenges and just a little bit of agony. “You touched your knees to your forehead. Okay, now bring your navel to your spine.” “Your balance is improving. Now lift your leg a little higher.”
Finally, the clock runs out. Class is over. The students let out their last breaths of relief. Resting on their backs, the bodies relax and the surroundings fade. There is no movement. The welcome fatigue of a hard workout settles in. The mind wanders and some fall asleep on that little land somewhere between wakefulness and sleep. Time is up.
From an outside perspective, and for many years from my own perspective, this type of practice can hardly be called yoga. This physical practice of sweat and muscle tension was so far removed from my ideas about yoga that I almost walked away. However, the truth is that this is exactly yoga.
Poor balance, muscle fatigue, tight hips: leaving class with a broken heart and a smile on your face.
Feel bloated, embarrassed by the ridiculously flexible person next to you, remember you were supposed to pick up dinner – walk out of class with a calm heart and a smile on your face.
Pass the gas (seriously, why does wind removal pose have to be so embarrassing), wake up snoring during shavasana, realize you’re a level one student in a level three class – leave class with a heart calm and a smile on his face.
With each class, you struggle through practice. You face your weaknesses and insecurities and yet you leave with a calm heart and a smile on your face. Yoga is stability in the face of a storm; a calm mind in the midst of a wavering world. Whether you expect it or not, that is exactly what this new yoga brings.
When you walk out the studio door, the experience is with you. And with just a little bit of repeated exposure, something amazing happens, calmness and stability also accompany you. This new yoga still works.