HOW CAN YOGA IMPROVE THE WAY YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR BODY
Today I want to write about how yoga can make you feel more comfortable in your own skin and can make you become more connected to your body. Imagine being able to somehow communicate with your body and therefore loving your body more intensely. Clearly, yoga is much more than a healthy relationship with your body. It spans from relaxing your mind, to connecting with your soul to finding a life path which is more true to yourself. However, in this essay I will focus on one very specific benefit in yoga which is creating a loving relationship with your body. For me, that’s how it all started.
In my youth I was a competitive athlete. I did rhythm gymnastic and competed at high level competitions representing my country, Switzerland. I loved competing and being able to bend my body, however when the time came to decide whether to continue competing or pursue my university study, I went for the higher education, and for the years that followed I spent most of my days at a desk. Needless to say, my muscles became stiff, my energy level went down and my weight went up. So to at least prevent further increase in my body weight I started running which kept me fit. Sadly I neglected to stretch and convinced my self that I didn’t have enough time to go to yoga classes so my body suffered from stiffness and joint pain, and my body felt foreign to me almost as if it were not my body. Finally, I realized I had to do something about it and re-discovered yoga. And in full honesty, I truly think that there is nothing better than yoga practice. If you take the time to close the door behind you and focus on the asanas and the breathing for an hour or two a couple of times a week, miracles will start to happen. I started to feel more connected to my body and consequently love my body more. It was almost as if I can have a conversation with my limbs and find harmony between what I want to do and how the muscles and joints will react to it. I always say, a yoga class is like a big morning stretch that lasts an hour. How good does that feel? To me it feels amazing. After a yoga class I feel energized, relaxed and even inspired to go out in the world and do good things. And the best thing yet, my students feel exactly the same. Over the last year I have been blessed to teach and inspire countless students who continue to pursue the wonderful journey of yoga.
My favorite Asanas, and the asanas that make me feel that deep connection between body are the following:
1. ADHO MUKHA SVANASANA. Downward facing dog. Try waking up in the morning and stretch your self in down dog. That alone will make your day so much better!! To perform adho mukha start seated on your knees, curl your toes under, lift your hips up and push your hands into the mat. Your feet should be hip distance apart, your legs extended, your tailbone lengthened away from the back of your pelvis, your ears away from your shoulders and your chin tucked into your chest. You will feel the stretch in your hamstrings and you will also feel an overall stretch in the anterior part of your body going from your hands, to your shoulders, to your neck, back and down to your legs and even the arches of your feet. As both a stretching and a strengthening pose, down dog provides incredible balance for mind and body.
2. ASHWA SANCHALANSANA. Lunge. Equestrian pose. In Ashwa sanchalanasana you not only open the groin and hip as well as stretch the back leg quadriceps, you also open up your chest, and like I always say in my classes, you open up your heart making yourself open to receive love. Ashwa sanchalanasana is performed in the Hatha sun salutation after padahastana. From forward bent you step forward with the leg and place the front foot on the mat between both hands. The back knee slightly bent comes down to the mat. In the final position, shifting the weight on the front leg supported with both hands you can relax and externally rotated the shoulders and then look up. With that last movement you are stretching the spine therefore increasing the flexibility of the back. This pose also strengthens knees and ankles and opens up groins and hips. It also strengthens the muscles of the chest hence increasing lungs capacity. Overall, it increases stability of the legs and mobility of the joints.
3. MARICHYASANA III Twisted seated pose. Sometimes called the Sage’s pose, it is a wise addition to any practice. Marichi literally means a ray of light. To perform this pose, start in dandasana. Then bend one knee and put the foot on the floor. Keep the other leg strong and straight and rotate slightly inward. With exhalation turn the torso towards the bended leg and wrap the arm of the extended leg around the bended leg externally rotating the elbow. The other arm will go the other way around and if possible grab the fingers behind your back and then look away from the body. This pose not only is a great twisting pose, it also helps with constipation and fatigue.
4. SIRSHASANA. Headstand. This pose is an intermediate pose but if you practice regularly it can be done by most students. Standing on your head in proper alignment not only strengthens your whole body but calms the brain. To perform headstand start seated on your knees, clasp your hands, interlace your fingers and place the upper arms on the floor creating a rectangle. Keep your elbows in. Place the crown of your head on your hands. Curl your toes under, lift your hips up, and slowly walk towards the chest with your feet. When the back is in one straight line, the feet will lift and eventually the legs will go up until achieving a full perpendicular angle with your body to the floor. In headstand, the blood will flow in the opposite direction bringing essential nutrients to your head, your brain, and leaving your face skin bright and glowing.
5. PRANAYAMA AND MEDITATION. Breathing is an essential part of performing the asanas. In classes like vinyasa yoga, each movement is linked to a specific inhale or exhale. It is for the importance of breathing in yoga that students should add pranayama practice to their yoga routine. My favorite pranayama practice is NADI SHODHANA PRANAYAMA with alternate nostril breathing. This technique gives pronounced balancing of the breath and the brain hemispheres. It has calming effects and relieves anxiety, improves concentration and stimulates Ajina chakra the third eye chakra. In fact in this breathing exercise the index finger and the middle finger rest on the forehead at the level of the third eye. The thumb will pluck and release the right nostril and the ring finger will pluck and release the left nostril. The way it works is as follow. With the fingers in the above mentioned position start by plucking the right nostril and inhale with the left nostril. At the top of the inhale, you can hold your breath (antar kumbhaka) by plucking both nostrils and then exhale through the right nostril. Then pluck the left nostril, inhale through the right nostril, do antar kumbhaka at the top of the inhale and then pluck the right nostril and exhale through the left. This is one round. You can start with ratio of 1:1:1. For example 5 seconds inhale, 5 seconds hold, 5 seconds exhale. And then increase the duration of antar kumbhaka and the duration of the exhale to a ratio of 1:4:2 which is mostly widely recommended in yogic texts.
Pranayama ties right in with meditation MEDITATION is a healing process. The best analogie for describing what happen in meditation is this. Imagine you walk into the water of an ocean. Your steps will make the water blurred from the sand and the waves. The waves and the sand are your thoughts and they make your mind (the water) murky. But if you calm down and find steadiness in your body and mind, the water will get more and more clear and you will be able to see the bottom of the ocean which is your true self. Making the water clear is the challenge and it may take time but with a good technique and a lot of practice we can turn those waters clear and most importantly see your true life purpose without interferences.
There are active and passive meditation techniques. For beginners being able to move the body in a walking or dancing meditation may make the process easier as the movement and singing itself can be a distraction from the vrittis (the thoughts that preoccupy your mind) but for me it’s easier to sit and calm my body fully in order to also calm my mind. So a comfortable seated position passive meditation with mental mantras is a very effective meditation technique.
The yogic DIET is primarily a vegetarian diet. Most people practice asanas and other aspects of yoga like pranayama and meditation, However, they eat animal products. Personally, I find the vegetarian diet more suited to the practice of yoga but I also believe that every person is different and differences should be celebrated. The beauty of yoga is that it is available to everyone. People with different religions, different skills, and also different diets, they ALL can practice yoga for their wellbeing.
Speaking of differences one more aspect of yogic life comes to mind. AYURVEDA. In Ayurveda each person has a different dosha (constitution). Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Such constitution can be one or 2 or a combination of all 3 doshas. Being able to recognize the doshas and their variations, as well as the imbalances of the doshas in the body can help you stay healthy and strive to achieve better health. And again the concept of harmonizing mind and body comes back here and with that I would like to get to my CONCLUSION.
I will end this essay by highlighting 3 aspects of why yoga can improve the way you feel about your body:
– yoga improves flexibility and strength and makes your body your accomplice rather than a burden
– yoga will alleviate pains in your body related to stress and tensions in your body and again make you feel better in your own skin
– yoga will lead you to a healthier, happier and longer life!