January is the perfect time to rediscover the things we often take for granted, to look at them with fresh eyes. Today let’s address an old yet enduring question:
Q: What differentiates yoga from a stretching class?
A: Well, on a purely physical level, yoga incorporates strengthening as well.
Follow-up Q: So what differentiates yoga from a stretching/strengthening class?
A: Again, on a purely physical level, stretching and strengthening together tends to isolate target muscles. In a yoga pose, there tend to be several muscle groups engaged at once, whether lengthening (stretching) or building (strengthening). Rarely in a yoga class will you do serious reps on a single set of muscles.
The key thing is, yoga is never on a purely physical level. We might come to yoga that way, but the physical benefits are often the happy side effects of a mindful practice.
Mindfulness it the major difference.
Q: How does one become “mindful” in yoga?
A: The breath. The breath is the tool that focuses the mind.
Q: Why the breath?
A: It’s the perfect tool. It’s an essential part of being alive. Though it’s more or less automatic, it can be modified in a multitude of ways (compared to, say, the heartbeat). It takes no special equipment to utilize, no perfect space to perform it. It’s a constant.
Regulation of the breath leads to regulation of the mind. There’s a feedback loop between the parasympathetic nervous system and the respiratory system. When we’re frightened or worried, the brain sends out stress signals, one result being that the breath becomes shallow and quick. We can reverse that response by slowing down the breath. Intentionally lengthening our inhales and exhales sends the signal to the brain that it can calm down.
Mindfulness is about experiencing the fullness of the present moment. The major goal of yoga–as with most introspective practices–is the focus on being present, being in the now. You’ve heard that phrase, right? You might even roll your eyes when you hear it because it’s become cliche for you.
Q: Yeah, how does “being in the now” do anything?
A: Let’s go back to that parasympathetic nervous system: when brain perceives danger, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks into gear to deal with the threat: hormones flood the body to stimulate the senses into hyper-alertness, breath speeds up to send oxygen to the muscles in case they need to spring into action, this state of hyper-sensitivity and readiness serves us well when there and immediate threat.
Except our brain often tricks the body into thinking there’s an immediate threat when there isn’t one. When our attention slides into memory, something that may have upset us in the past can stimulate the same physiological stress-response as if we were experiencing it in the present. PTSD is a more extreme form of this. Also, when we start to worry about what may happen in the future–boom–stress hormones kick in as if what might happen were a current threat. Being in a constant state of hyper-alertness depletes mental and physical resources (leaving us feeling run down even if we haven’t engaged in physical activity). If we’re going to escape the constant state of stress, we need to take the time to settle in the here and now.
The breath is right now. We don’t get hung up on past breaths, nor are we likely to worry about the future breaths.
Of all the introspective traditions, I’ve found yoga the most accessible route to the now. Before I got into an asana practice, meditation eluded me. Sitting still was an invitation for every stray thought to occupy my attention. After a lifetime of busy-busy-busy (and being proud of busy-busy-busy), I could barely keep my focus through a single breath cycle. Yoga, with its incorporation of intentional movement (intentional distraction) with the breath, made it easier for me to reside in the moment. As with every other action, focus becomes a habit the more we perform it. As yoga became more of a moving meditation (and less about stretching and working out), the more able I was able to maintain focus in other areas, including seated meditation.
Of course, quality exercise classes do indeed incorporate mindfulness and breathing, but they do so insofar as it engenders a physical intelligence. The intentional breathing and alignment in an exercise class is a means toward performing the exercises efficiently and effectively so as to achieve specific physical goals. Conversely, in yoga, the intentional performance of the asanas is a means toward exercising mindfulness to achieve the more holistic goal of maintaining a calm state of being no matter what the circumstance (be it on the mat with a pretzel pose or in the midst of a life crisis).
[If you have any other questions pertaining to yoga–poses or principles–feel free to post them in the comments or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll do my best to address them.]
Thank you for reading.