If you’ve been living in America in the past 20 years, you don’t need me to tell you that Yoga has become popular. Yoga classes in urban areas are packed with people looking for the “lean yoga body” or trying to find some metaphorical balance while their bodies practice physical balance. The phrase “off the mat” has become part of common lingo to describe how the spiritual part of yoga practice travels with us into our daily lives. Even rural towns are seeing yoga classes scheduled at local schools, community colleges, and in church basements.
The word “yoga” is a Sanskrit word which translates most often into “unity” or “union with the Divine” in English. Many of us first encounter yoga through the postures or asanas. These physical exercises comprise only a part of the total yoga philosophy which also includes mental and spiritual practices. However, once in a yoga class, most teachers will introduce students to the greater yoga experience (to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the teacher) through their commentary during the class and sometimes through a question-and-answer session outside of the class.
There are a great many varieties of yoga available to students, including Ashtanga, Hatha, Kundalini, Inyengar, Bikram, and others, as well as hybrid classes such as Yoga/Zumba, aerial yoga, or CrossFit yoga. Again, the spiritual and mental facets of the yoga practice are present in these in varying degrees, and students can search for practices and instructors that fit their needs best.
So, to come clean, I love yoga! I feel good in encouraging my body to stretch into the postures, and I absolutely jive with the spiritual aspects. I enjoy the opportunity to focus on my breath, to pay attention to exactly where my body is in space, and to practice surrendering my thoughts into the bliss of presence. I’ve sampled several styles of yoga, and like many of you, I have found that some styles suit me better than others.
One area that I keep coming back to is Yin Yoga, sometimes this is also called Restorative Yoga, but I have experienced them in different ways, so I’m going to stick with Yin for this post.
In Yin Yoga the student is guided by the instructor (or by her/himself) into a posture/asana and then holds this pose for 3-20 minutes. Physically this allows the practitioner to find both ease and a slight edge to the posture as the body takes the stretch deeper and deeper from the muscles and skin to the connective tissue and bones. Yin is about opening to new understanding of your body and heart by giving yourself space to be gentle and allow the body to open and soften in its own way. In an hour-long class, the student may only experience 5-8 postures, which are often supported with props such as bolsters, straps, and blocks.
What (hopefully) happens in the mind during the practice of yoga is cessation of the monkey-mind and the unfolding of yoga nidra – the calm-and-yet-aware state that is often associated with “just before you fall asleep when you get all sorts of great ideas”. For myself, I have found that Yin Yoga, more than any other style, takes me to just this place. By holding a posture for 5-10 minutes, I can unwind my body and my mind and then my spirit/soul has the space to come alive, and I am in a space where inspiration and expanded ideas are available to me without having the judgement of whether these ideas are viable, practical, or how I will implement them (or if I even have to!).
This place of inspiration comes with the breath (inhale=inspire, exhale=expire), and by following the breath with the mind, by focusing on the sensations of the body, and by observing the thoughts that arise, we are able to bring our mind, body, and spirits into alignment in the moment, as we are. When that happens, we create the neural connections in our brains that (with practice and repetition) create the neural pathways that allow us to take this unity of Self into the places where it is often challenging to remain calm and present. Think traffic jams, familial conflicts, relationship challenges, workplace deadlines, parent-teacher conferences, name-your-own stress here…
With presence and inspiration we can find new responses to old situations and thereby create a new template for how we live our lives. Life happens anyway, right? And change comes along with or without our consent. It takes intention and awareness to tap into who we want to be, who we really are, and a spiritual practice that incorporates the body gives us the chance to cultivate that awareness of Self so that our intentions can become clearer and clearer. From that place of clarity, we are able to choose our responses to situation rather than just reacting from old programming or outdated patterns. We can choose to grow in the direction of our highest good.