Yoga asana is one small chunk from a much bigger pie. Yoga in itself is a life practice and I wholeheartedly admit that I am very early on in that journey. I have specifically homed in on the asana section as I feel this is the 'gateway' to the much deeper aspects of the practice for the majority of practitioners, myself being one of them.
The proven benefits of asana (generalised) are as follows -
- Balance / Proprioception
- Mobility and flexibility through multiple planes of movement
- Strength and stability
- Core awareness and engagement
- Reduced stress levels benefitting anxiety, depression etc
- Organ function
- Lymphatic system efficiency
- Clarity and focus
... the list is endless!
Originally it all started with wanting to be more 'mobile' and 'flexible' ... surely a few stretches couldn't be that hard! I was wrong - very wrong!! I didn't envisage the huge benefits that would arrive from positions that challenged the bodies stability, mobility, strength and balance as well as the inner workings; tapping into areas of stress induced tension which had stored itself in tissues throughout my body, that were in need of releasing!
I thought I had a fair amount of strength, balance and mobility but this was all challenged very early on in my first Ashtanga class. Thoughts passed through my head over the coming months and I'm sure I am not the only one! ...
... "How can I wrap my arm round there?"
... "There is no way my hip can do that!"
... "Why are my feet turning blue?!"
... "I didn't realise sitting still was far harder than moving!"
... "If I continue to sweat anymore I am going to resemble a raisin."
... "My balance is a lot worse than I thought!"
... "How many breaths in Navasana?!"
The list goes on, but this highlighted the constant internal dialogue that plays in the background and dictates a lot of our decision making etc. I started to see that I could utilise the breath to work the body into positions that I honestly thought I would never attain. I started to see that the benefits of this practice are obviously there on a physical level but by being there physically it must therefore correlate to our overall mental and cognitive functioning, as the nervous system weaves its way throughout the body.
Our whole body is constantly talking to itself via many different methods, checking it is working well, adapting to climates, situations, life etc. By altering my own physical structure on the mat I was learning how to deal with situations off the mat. I was slowly learning how to control the way my body reacts to stress throughout all aspects of my life!
For example ... a 'stressful' situation comes up, adrenaline dumps into the system - instantly respiration and heart rate starts to increase, panic sets in, the eyes go straight into tunnel vision mode. BUT, the thing that can easily break this cycle is being able to control the breath, something that becomes very natural after focusing on it for up to 2-3 hours a day. This is paramount for situations encountered in jobs and situations that present more risk to life: soldiers, emergency service personnel and many other jobs and activities. Yoga asana and basic pranayama allowed me to regulate my stress levels both on a short term level and long term by bringing more clarity and focus.
The breath is the link between the mind and body, it is one of the first things that is checked in a first aid scenario (DRABC) and for good reason. The breath is of the upmost importance as without it the movements are just that - 'slightly less mindful movement.' The words have been chosen carefully as you can still be mindful without maintaining control of the breath. Yet it breeds more mindfulness by adding it into the equation.
The physical practice in itself should always remain bio-mechanically sound to promote the best outcome for that individual, which will change on a daily, if not hourly basis,but must also be free of dogma (free of restraints) and therefore not being bound to a certain word, practice or lifestyle. This lesson led to the next benefit. I started to try and cultivate a lack of attachment to 'things' in general.
I aim to start my daily practice free of expectation. This aspect of 'surrender' has allowed me to remain present and receptive to the feelings that occur during my time on and off the mat. The physical practice takes many forms and can be adapted to suit an individual dependent on their lifestyle and patterns. Within an asana practice, this constant pull into the present moment helps to tune in with what is important ... life itself.
Yoga asana allows hundreds of people to practice in the same room together with each person having their own individual practice. It also means thousands of people can practice at home, everyone of them setting intentions for the day ahead and dedicating their own practice to someone or something else showing selflessness and compassion towards others and the world we reside in.
The physical practice of yoga has many physical benefits but it is our mindset and our perceptions of the things around us that start to change for the better. Asana should aim to cultivate awareness, both in subtle forms of our internal processing and on a much larger scale it brings together like minded people with positive and proactive mindsets.
This practice can be taken up at any age, it is universal, adaptable to you and fundamentally it is 'your yoga'. Start to learn a practice today and you will see how it can change your life for the better, as well as the lives of others around you.