Here we are again.
It’s January. The time when news feeds, commercials and billboards are all flooded with ways to improve ourselves. “New Year, New You” messages inundate the airwaves of our subconscious and most of these messages allude to the fact that the best way to improve our miserable lives is to make drastic changes to our bodies. Couple this with a 2-year COVID landscape and the messages of undoing our depression and isolation induced weight gain are even louder and more difficult to ignore.
It saddens me that even as a member of the yoga community, surrounded by individuals and corporations who are jumping on the body positivity bandwagon (and profiting from it) I’m still seeing messages about how to “eat Ayurvedically to lose weight” or how to “tone your arms and tighten your core with inversions.”
At Heartwood Yoga institute where I teach, we often refer to the philosophical concepts of yoga as “Big Yoga.” What we mean by this is that there is so much more to yoga than just postures. Luckily here in the west we seem to finally be catching up to this idea (albeit rather slowly). What does this mean exactly though? What exactly is the deeper meaning of yoga? And how to we utilize postures in a way that isn’t detrimental to our mental and physical health when all we can see on Instagram are thin, white, female bendy bodies upside down in crop tops?
I have found so many students arriving at yoga Teacher Training with a mistaken idea of yoga, not even aware that the physical practice is only 1/8th of what we consider Hatha yoga. Even less often do we start this journey with an understanding of the magnitude of impact that our subtle body energies have on our physical body. “The issues are in the tissues,” as they say. What I love about the health and wellness community is that more and more often I am hearing these ideas come directly from the mouths of doctors and therapists (mine included), giving Yoga Therapists like myself more credibility than we have ever had before.
So I’d like to take this opportunity to explore where yoga might fit in the western world of body-obsessed individuals and what yoga teachers could be “Selling” instead of new year’s body goals.
Promise – “Yoga promotes physical change or improvement”
Reality – Yoga promotes Self-awareness which brings about a decision to be our best self
Yoga Asana (or the physical practice) is one of 8 limbs of the practice of Hatha yoga. Many lineages believe that the only reason yoga practitioners ever practiced postures is to prepare the body to sit for extended periods of time in meditation. That Meditation itself is the actual, ultimate goal of yoga. If this is the case, then it doesn’t matter if we can balance in Tree pose and stick our toe up our nose. If we cannot be still and go inward in reflection, then we aren’t practicing “yoga” at all. We are simply exercising. We may as well go find a spin class instead. There is a time and a place for asana to be of importance and for many students, this is a way to begin channeling our energy to discipline and growth, but the answer to weather or not we are actually doing this is in our intention. If we can be completely honest with ourselves and notice when our ego is guiding our practice, we should never have a problem knowing if our asana practice is legitimate or not. How do we start to recognize our ego? Meditation! To truly be an advanced yoga practitioner, it is said we must be able to be still and listen inward. Openly, honestly, without fear. If our goals are driven by ego, by the desire to be better, look better or win against ourselves or others then we are missing the whole point of yoga.
Promise – “Yoga promotes weight loss or management”
Reality – Yoga regulates our nervous system and this keeps our bodies in their optimal state
In addition to the self-awareness that yoga gives us, the stress relief of yoga is what mostly leads to a healthier body. When we feel a sense of inner balance and peace in savasana or meditation, our bodies move out of the sympathetic nervous system stress response and into a parasympathetic nervous response where we lower blood sugar, stress hormones and improve digestion and organ functions. Heart health is improved and our bodies return to a natural homeostasis. This does often lead us back to whatever shape our bodies were naturally intended for and hopefully along the way we find acceptance of what that shape is as well. Surprisingly enough however, physical movements can have very little to do with this change.
In the modern world where our nervous system is inundated with noise and stimulation and stress – the most healthy activity we can do for our bodies, hearts and immunity is to simply relax. In addition, the concept of non-attachment or Aparigraha teaches us to accept that life will not always be perfect and our job is to stay grounded and present even when things totally suck. This allows us to regulate our own nervous systems even when there is chaos, because we have practiced it time and time again on the mat in a controlled environment. Weather you’re working toward 108 sun salutations or laying on a bolster for 30 minutes, whatever activates that parasympathetic response in your body is helping you win at health and longevity. How do you know you got there? One benefit is improved circulation to your digestive system = stomach growling during savasana is a great thing!
Promise – “Cleanses are part of yoga”
Reality – Your body cleans itself every day. Yoga DOES help you get rid of the mental gunk.
Ayurveda is the sister science to yoga. One element of this practice is eating in accordance with your given constitution. This means that some of us are built to eat meat, others are not. Some crave spicy foods and others crave sweets, etc. When we add like to like, it throws our bodies and energy out of balance. Firey people + firey food = inflammation and anger, for example. By practicing self-awareness and knowing what our natural tendencies are it is said that we will be able to stay in balance in part through the foods we eat. When we find ourselves out of balance, Ayurveda recommends a “cleanse” that involves natural elements such as oiling the body inside and out or eating a simple mono-diet of rice and mung beans etc. These types of cleanses are recommended based on the individual’s constitution and spoiler alert: NONE of them involve living off of lemon water, tea or mushroom milk for a month. The purpose is to reset the digestive system in a way that is soft and kind to the body under the care of a licensed or certified ayurvedic counselor with thousands of hours of schooling. Watch out for diet culture creeping into yoga spaces. Real Ayurveda will never come in the form of a one size fits all advertisement. It is always curated for the individual after careful one on one counsel.
IN ADDITION – The concept of “removal of toxins” is NOT a reality. Your body has specific mechanisms in place to remove wastes (digestive, lymphatic, sweating and more) and yoga postures do not “squeeze” wastes out of you. Movement can improve the function of your organs but speaking about the body as if it were “toxic” creates an unhealthy relationship with it for many of us living with body image issues. (More on language in yoga classes in another blogpost) The best cleanse that yoga can provide is the one where we release our expectations, our judgements, triggers and our self-deprecating thoughts.
Promise & Reality – Yoga is life.
So the next time you or someone you know mistakenly touts yoga as a way to “get rid” of the undesirable parts of themselves (physical or otherwise) perhaps you can gently remind them of all the wonderful things true yoga can add to our lives instead, such as:
– inquiry into the subconscious
– stress relief
– energetic awareness
– Ayurvedic education
– freedom from our thoughts and emotions
After all, yoga isn’t about changing.
It’s about connecting to our innermost, untouchable, radiant self.
And we are perfect as we are.