Activities that Calm the Mind, Part 3: Yoga
Getting Started in Yoga
What’s the first thing you think of when you read the word “yoga?”
Is it a thin, able-bodied person twisted into a pretzel while maintaining the most serene-looking face you’ve ever seen?
If so, it is not surprising at all, as this is what you
typically see when you do a search for yoga on social media!
Let me assure you though, that image definitely does NOT encompass the entirety of the beautiful philosophy of yoga. Movement is only one small part and flexibility is not a requirement. Anyone, regardless of ability, age, pregnancy, etc. can receive the powerful benefits of yoga.
My own yoga teacher, Karina Ayn Mirsky, summed this up perfectly:
“It’s not the pose you’re in, but how you are in the pose. An advanced practitioner is not someone who can accomplish an advanced yoga posture, but rather someone who can remain calm and steady with their attention anchored in the present moment in whatever pose they are practicing.”
Yoga is a way of life - a prescription for mind, body, spirit balance. It offers a variety of subtle and overt practices to help you feel more connected to your inner world, the world around you, as well as the world beyond. It is essentially a whole way of living.
Now seeing the phrase “a whole way of living” may sound a bit intimidating at first, but let me tell you a bit more before you run away…you may even find that yoga is actually something you are already doing!
What Is Yoga?
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root word yuj and means “union, to unite, connect, or yoke.” The purpose of yoga is to join together your consciousness and unconsciousness, and there is an 8-fold pathway provided to help us achieve that goal. This intricate pathway provides a variety of practices for the mind, body, and spirit, all to help us achieve optimal overall wellness as well as connection to Source (aka God, The Universe). It is a beautiful way of life that gives us the tools to feel more at peace. Since yoga philosophy and the 8-fold pathway is so complex, we will not go over all 8 limbs, or steps, today. Definitely check out my last post about yogic breathwork for anxiety if you want to take a deeper dive.
Asana (Physical Practice / Postures):
Asana is the physical postures that constitute the practice of Hatha Yoga. There are 84 main postures and it is rumored that each has one hundred thousand variations! Don’t worry, I won’t quiz you on them at the end.
Since the physical postures / practice, or asana, is the most commonly known of the 8-limbs in the Western world, that is one we will focus on today, as it is actually a great place to start for anxiety.
Imagine your anxiety is a speeding train that must slow down before it can stop completely.You can’t just go from absolutely frantic to sitting down quietly in meditation. The synchronicity between mind and body created from combining breath and movement is necessary in calming an anxious body and mind.
We all know rocking a crying baby can help them calm down. Think of the rocking as giving the anxious energy something to focus on, a rhythm to align with. The baby starts to deepen their breath as they feel the swaying motion. They naturally connect their breathing with the motion. Their heart rate slows, the crying stops, they are calm. The baby is practicing yoga through the connection of the breath, motion, and mind in the present moment.
Whenever you feel like that tiny baby about to lose your cool, give your body some kind of movement. Any kind of movement. Dancing, walking, and asana are all great places to start.
And if you are in a seat, you can try this:
Place your left hand on your left shoulder and your right hand on your right shoulder making your upper body look like a lowercase “t” with your elbows
Lower your gaze slightly and inhale deeply through your nose for 3 seconds
As you exhale, twist at the waist towards your left, keeping your hips and tailbone connected to the seat, arms in the “t” shape, exhaling completely for at least 4 seconds or more
As soon as you start to inhale, unwind back to center, keeping the counting going
And now exhale the same way to the right and inhale back to center
Repeat this 3x, breathing as long as you are moving and moving as long as you are breathing
Your brain will continue to try to distract you but just let any thoughts that pop up play out in front of you as if on a TV screen. Allow them to pass by without attaching any feelings to them.
The movement here will be mostly from the belly. It expands as you inhale and contracts as you twist. Feel your abdominal muscles pulling your rib cage. It’s not your shoulders directing the movement, it’s your breath and belly.
As my teacher said above, it’s not what pose you’re in that makes you an advanced yoga practitioner, it’s how your mind behaves when challenged with difficult postures and difficulties in life.
Asana is powerful because it’s as mentally challenging as it is physically challenging, maybe more so at times. These challenges may be why you don’t like yoga as you’ve experienced it so far. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve cried on my mat. Facing my unfiltered thoughts as I also faced my physical boundaries has always been an emotional experience for me.
But as I practice breathing and moving through these poses, letting my thoughts pass by rather than attaching myself to them, I find it easier to deal with everyday stressors off the mat. How do I accomplish this without going into child’s pose every time I’m faced with a challenge? I use my breath and senses.
Additional Practices For Finding Calm:
In the above exercise, we have asana, which is the physical movement of yoga, but we also have pranayama and pratyahara.
Pranayama is actually the counting you did in the practice above while inhaling and exhaling. It’s technically “breath work to control or master the life force.” So you just mastered your life force! Isn’t that empowering?
You can use pranayama in a variety of situations where movement isn’t available. Driving in your car, sitting at your desk, or in a long line at the store. One important thing to remember about pranayama is that the longer you exhale, the more relaxing effects you experience. The longer you inhale, the more energizing. When the inhale and exhale are of equal length, the effects work together and provide balance.
Pratyahara is “withdrawal and control of the senses.” If you tried the seated exercise above, you went inward to gain control of your heart rate, upset stomach, dry mouth, etc. You lowered and softened your gaze. You stopped paying attention to the sounds and smells around you. You practiced yoga and you didn’t even have to touch your toes!
Yoga is just presence in action. When your mind is anxious, it’s thinking of things that already happened or making up future scenarios that are not guaranteed. When you take some deep breaths, focus your mind on one point, and let those thoughts come up and go away on their own, you can then see the bigger picture. You don’t become unemotional but you are able to feel your emotions as they happen and move through them with grace and tender loving care. They are allowed to exist but they do not control you.
Why is it important to feel your feelings as they happen? Bottling up your emotions is both mentally and physically destructive. It has been shown to put stress on the body leading to diabetes and heart disease risks and memory difficulties.
Chronic dismissal of your feelings can cause low self confidence. You may start to believe that no one cares about your opinion or ideas. Your needs continually go unmet as you don’t even have a clear idea of what they are, let alone how to communicate them. All of this compounds in your anxious mind.
Practicing asana, pranayama, and pratyahara can help you start shifting your experience of the world, connecting you with your deepest needs and learning how to self-soothe. You can, very gently, get to know yourself. Remember the speeding train? This concept applies when accelerating as well. Go slow. Try a little bit at a time. Be curious. Ask yourself questions as if you were getting to know a new romantic interest. In time, you’ll find that these practices come naturally in times of anxiety and you will feel less bothered by the things that used to send you spiraling.
Here at BYBS, we fully believe in the power of yoga for mental health and wellness and have two Registered Yoga Teachers on staff who can answer any questions you may have. We love talking about all things yoga and are happy to help you get started in this beautiful philosophy, so reach out today to learn more about how we can help.