Yoga is both the path - of dedicated effort, continuous self study & devotion or divine surrender ('Tapas, Swadhyaya & Ishwara Pranidhan'). And the experience - of re-uniting with our deepest Self...or God, or spirit or true happiness, whatever we wish to call 'it'.
From 120 kids at a Hackney primary school to the clients of the charity MIND and incredibly busy and inspiring business women, the varied interest I meet only seeks to re-affirm my view that Yoga is for every body (,mind and soul). I also find myself repeating one of my favourite quotes from the Indian saint, Sri Aurobindo that "all life is Yoga".
This for me has become true over the last 14 years, but if that sounds a bit all-consuming don't worry - basically I mean that what we do on the mat can positively impact the rest of our lives and vice versa.
The ultimate goal of Yoga is self realization - of Self, by self - and it's beauty is that no one tells you what's what or who you are. We don't even have to intend to stay on to the final destination to benefit – or to change our religion, get a religion or subscribe to anyone else's beliefs. Yes Yoga offers us techniques and many paths but it asks us to test everything for ourselves, to explore through practise rather than follow.
It's message unfolds from within - like the symbolic lotus flower.
The beauty of the lotus flower is not without effort (tapas) and the story is often told of how it finds its way through the crap at the bottom of the lake to get to the clean air and become all it can. Yoga is similarly about fulfilling our potential: because we all have it, we just have varying degrees of "stuff" to work through first, which is blocking our ability to realise.
Every knot in the mind has a knot in the body - our Yoga practice attacks these knots on all fronts. The more we untie them more slack we give ourselves to move, breathe, think and be. To give you an overview of the benefits I'm using the model of the "koshas".
While Yoga is suitable for every body, this body is not just this sum of bones, skin, organs...according to Yogic anatomy we are composed of 5 bodies or inter-related 'sheaths'. If you imagine a set of Russian dolls; each grosser layer reveals a subtler one beneath.
On the physical level – Annamaya Kosha - our body made of food and shaped by past karma, Yoga can help us to tone, strengthen and protect: maintaining healthy joints and a mobile spine for example, as well as regulating the workings of our systems such as digestion; promoting better breathing patterns and even stimulating glands and hormones.
Neuroscience is catching up to the wonders that Yogis realised in meditation many years ago such as that breathing techniques can regulate the functioning of the nervous system, reducing the loop of fight and flight; stress in the mind creating stress on the body and vice versa.
Many people find that Yoga helps them to sleep better, both through going to bed physically relaxed and being able to withdraw the mind from rumination. I was a terrible sleeper for years and I feel sure that the quality of my sleep has changed – evidence supports that Yoga, and in particular the meditation element of it, affects our brainwaves - promoting those of deep relaxation and rest – far beyond the time that we actually spend on the mat.
Yogic calm is not just a pretty picture but affects our brain chemistry. Research in the States found that Yoga produced more GABA, an essential neurotransmitter for positive mood states, than any other type of exercise and improved functioning of memory and reaction times.
Yoga also impacts heart rate variability a key indicator of good health and longevity...I could go on and on! The thing that I have found myself, coming from both stress and depression in the past, is that Yoga not only brought me into my body but made us friends, if not always best ones, and now I listen to it, as a good friend should.
The pranic/ vital body – Pranamaya Kosha – exists along with the breath and bridges the gap between the mental and physical layers. While we are born with our 'food' body, our vital body we create and can expand infinitely. Prana can be increased infinitely by our practise. Which brings me on to talk about the energy system...
Within our subtle anatomy the chakras, like energy transmitters, connect little us to an infinite source of Prana - the force of life that makes everything tick. And connecting them - a super highway of Nadis where the Prana flows within. Bear with me here!... No one has, as far as I know, proved the existence of the chakras and perhaps never will as we are talking about a subtle not tangible layer here. But experientially have my feelings, body understanding, behaviour towards the people I love improved as I have worked more consciously on this level? Yes!
I have often read of the chakras being related to awakening dormant centers in the brain. They certainly produce distinct states of or shifts in consciousness which have been experienced consistently by yogis for over 3,000 years. Yoga tells us that anything going wrong is due to the blockage or imbalance of energy. Whether we make it a focus or not kriyas, asana, pranayama, mudras, bandhas - all those amazing tools of our trade - are balancing this energetic layer with knock on effects to physical health and mental well-being.
Just to confuse things our 'energy' is sub-divided into 10 pranas which have responsibility for different functions – so when we twist, invert, forward-bend or back-bend the body there is more to it than creating an amazing looking shape – hence a balanced Yoga class will leave us feeling energised not drained and with a sense of inner harmony between these energies.
The mental body – Manomaya Kosha - a "collection of thoughts", as my teacher so beautifully describes. Who would not like to have some respite from the constant narrative at times? Yogas very purpose is "the stilling of the modifications of the mind." The moment we start to focus on our bodies or breath in class we are coming towards present awareness and even recognising that we are thinking about making the tea not Trikonasana means we are aware – awareness is key.
Not only quieting the mind but accessing its deeper layers, which contain impressions left by our past experiences. Why does this matter? These, our "samskaras", often pop up, unrecognized, to shape our future actions. So we go through life looping behaviour and lamenting things not being the way we'd like.
Yoga brings us to a witness perspective of everything around us and of ourselves - a safe place from which to weather the good and bad. Observing (self study) more than judging in every day life we may feel more focused and be more ready to let things go than take them personally. When I first started to think about karma I wanted to hide under the bed but over time I have been surprised to both blame myself less yet take more responsibility for my actions.
At the same time as weeding out the old we are sowing the mind with more positive patterns: mantras, routine, yama and niyama, cultivating positive feelings, these are all parts of Yoga whether you are dipping into the odd class or following a set sadhana.
The intuitive body – Vijnanamaya Kosha - how valuable to begin to just know when something is up with a friend and they need support, or with our own bodies; trusting our intuition allows us to save so much energy and time, free up our mind space, to be independent of what everyone else thinks. When we work at this level understanding comes about ourselves, others and truth.
And finally the bliss body – Anandamaya Kosha - Yoga says bliss is not years, miles or £s away but accessible right here and now to every one of us. If intuition is beyond knowledge then the experience and benefits of bliss are beyond even words - incomparable, indescribable, full of love beyond love. Surrender.
Yoga is about experience - direct experience, your experience – give it a