What comes to mind when you think of the word yoga? Is it that Instagram Yogini doing some fabulous pose? Maybe a spiritual mendicant wearing robes? Or, a California-born, tree-hugging yoga teacher? (guilty).
There is some truth to those statements, but yoga is so much more than that. The yoga postures typically get all the attention. Sure, with regular practice, the physical postures of yoga will make you stronger and more flexible. But, more accurately, yoga is a science for your health and wellbeing and the postures of yoga are only 1/8 of this very rich practice of self-care.
Yoga means to yoke, bridge, or connect. Connect what? Your mind and body. Why is that important? I like to point to a quote from James Joyce's book, The Dubliners.
"Mr. Duffly lived a short distance from his body."
Reflect on a moment when you might have felt like you were living a short distance from your own body. Maybe it was during a busy time with work, a complication in a relationship, a pandemic, or a war. Sometimes it's a habit, but the mind has a tendency to spend most of the day vacillating between the past and future. During the pandemic, we read about Covid cases and calculated risk. Helpful. I've heard of amazing stories from Ukrainian women who strategically planned and helped get their loved ones out of Ukraine. Our minds have an amazing capacity to help keep us alive and out of future danger. The mind can be a great servant and often a horrible master if we find ourselves spending most of the day worrying about something that might (or might not) happen in the future.
Another example; let's imagine a colleague, friend, or even a total stranger said or did something that you found offensive (or even just annoying). Maybe this happened yesterday, last week, last month or ten years ago, yet you are still carrying the past event around with you, infecting your present moment experience (and perhaps even, subtly infecting everyone around you). Again, great servant as you move forward from this moment with knowledge and boundaries, horrible master if we're dragging the event around and let it affect our entire day, month, year.
What is the consequence of being lost in thought for most of our days, months, even years? When we spend the majority of our time in a past or future moment, with very little time in presence, we not only miss out on connections with others, but we also lose the ability to listen to our bodies and practice self-care. Without bridging mind and body, we can easily become sick, injured, burnt-out as well as contaminate (in subtle and big ways) our relationships and our surroundings.
Even a short practice of the physical postures of yoga can be an opportunity to give your body your full, whole-hearted attention. It can offer a moment of checking in with the body, mind, and heart and noticing what needs your attention from moment to moment. With regular moments of this whole-hearted attention, we start to listen deeply to the needs of our bodies, minds and hearts and maybe get up for that glass of water (instead of plowing through work). Maybe we hit the pause on Netflix and get to sleep a bit earlier instead of letting the series roll onto the next episode. Maybe we notice when the heart needs more care (more boundaries in our relationships) instead of deferring to avoidance tendencies, or lashing out...often followed by emotional eating, drinking, or shopping (fill in your emotional, mind-numbing go-to here ______.).
Go forward gently, dear one. This is sometimes just a habit.
Yoga can also be an opportunity to embody what you might need in your day or your life. Imagine you need to ask for time off from work, a raise, or a little support. What state do you want your body to be in when you're asking for what you need? Is it with shoulders down and hunched forward, feeling unsteady? No. You want to stand tall, feet firmly planted in the ground, shoulders back, heart forward. Strong, rooted, unwavering (yet a sense of ease in the body). Our physical postures can help us embody these qualities so we can better take care of our needs.
Ever try to put a couple of kids to bed after the 5th story and 3rd glass of water? How do you want to embody holding your ground? Stand tall, rooted, shoulders back, as you balance a sense of firmness and say, "It's time for bed." Final example. Think of a task that you are required to do (work, home life, whatever) and don't love doing. For me, it's accounting. I often find myself in these moments hunched forward, head in one hand, heart sunken in...no passion...no bandhas. Just a short practice of shoulder openers, along with a breathing practice for more energy, is sometimes enough to embody even the hint of passion towards my least-favorite task. In my regular classes, I like to remind people;
"Allow your body to be the physical representation of what you need in your day, and often the mind will follow."