(Article previously published by the wellness brand The Candidly.)
Let’s be real. Yoga is weird. I know it’s incredibly trendy, and it seems like everyone is doing it but the bottom line is it’s just a semi-bizarre thing to do. It feels strange moving your body in ways that seem wholly unnatural and counter-intuitive—leave “Happy Baby” to actual babies.
And then there are the people. Typically, skinny women outfitted in Lululemon, carrying brightly colored metal water bottles filled with Kangen water because regular water isn’t evolved enough. And then there are the bearded men, with their calf tattoos, and their man buns, all of them also sporting Lululemon. Lululemon is making a shit-ton of money off people easily parted with their cash.
So I hear you. The ick factor is high.
Then there is the 20ish yoga teacher, with her perky Instagram celebrity glow, who speaks in a low, airy voice—the kind of voice that should only ever be used when you’re waking somebody up from a deep sleep or trying to put someone in a deep sleep. They tell you things like “breathe into your ovaries,” and” rotate your inner thighs out toward the wall” (wut?) and then they try to pixie dust you with essential oils to help you “deepen” into your Savasana. Get back, lady. I’m juuuust fine.
As someone who has done yoga for years, taught yoga for years and watched yoga transform to fit the needs of the American consumer, I can attest to the downright eye-rolling annoyingness of it, the hype of it, and the over-priced expense of it. For the longest time classes were around $10. Now the average hovers between $20-25 for a drop-in class. And I get it—overhead. You gotta pay teachers, cover the rent, supply the evolved Kangen water, and have the square footage for all those prayer beads and $65 gauzy tank tops.
If you can put all that noise aside and get down to the essentials of yoga, you will find something that is real, that can be used in everyday life, and that has tremendous value.
These are the things that yoga has taught me that I use several times a week even if I don’t step foot into a yoga class.
Just breathe. You’d be surprised if you took the time to notice how many times a day you aren’t breathing. Lots of people hold their breath periodically throughout the day and never notice it. If you’re a woman in the workforce and you’ve had men talk over you or take full credit for your ideas, then you probably hold your breath. A lot.
Holding breath equals holding emotion. Why? Because one way we control our emotions is through our breath. When someone does something that really angers you and you can’t say anything at that moment, what do you do? Usually, you suck in your breath and hold it for a second, then breathe out with clenched teeth. It’s something we do when we’re angry or scared or sad.
Yoga makes you pay attention to your breath. So much so that with time, you will quickly make the connection between a change in your emotions and a change in how you’re breathing.
When I teach, I tell my students that the poses of yoga are secondary. Yoga is about connecting you with your breath. In each pose ask yourself, ‘How am I breathing in this pose? How does my breathing change from one pose to the next?’ When you move with the breath, each posture becomes an expression of that breath.
There are different breathing exercises for different purposes ranging from those that calm you to those that energize. Alternate-nostril breathing is a technique that helps calm you down.
Here’s how to do it:
Using your right hand, curl the middle three fingers down against the palm, leaving the pinky and thumb extended. Press your thumb against the right nostril, cutting off the air, and inhale through the left nostril. Hold the breath in as you pinch your nose with both the pinky and the thumb. Then release your thumb, opening the right nostril and exhale through the right side. And repeat, closing by closing the right side with your thumb and inhaling through the left. Do this for a few minutes and I guarantee that you will feel calmer.
You can use this anytime you need it. And don’t worry if you’re in public and others can see you. You don’t know those people and what they think doesn’t matter.
One of the big payoffs to breathing exercises is that they have a direct impact on your ability to focus (more on that in a minute) and the health of your brain. A study reported on in Science Daily from Trinity College Dublin found that “The way we breathe… directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.” The goal of this study was to see if the things yogis and meditation teachers have been saying for years about the benefits of breathing exercises were true. Turns out, yes, y’all!
Knowing how to control your breathing and the ability to transition from regular breathing to a long, deep breath is one of the key take-aways from yoga class for managing daily stress and anxiety.
Today things move so fast that being able to focus on one thing for even five minutes can feel like a challenge. Yoga teaches us how to focus. During a class, our focus will shift from our breath to our alignment to our gaze.
‘Set your gaze on a spot on the floor in front of you,’ is something you typically hear when doing a balance posture like “Tree Pose”. Where you place your eyes is important because it becomes your focal point. Think about when you drive your car. If you take your eyes off of the road ahead of you and look to your right at an accident on the shoulder, the car will veer slightly to the right. The car follows your gaze just like your focus.
Your practice will only be as good as your focus. If you are distracted and looking at the person on the mat in front of you or looking at your toes thinking, ‘It’s really time for a pedi,’ then you won’t be able to feel the subtle shifts in your body, or your breath. You won’t reach that inner stillness of mind that comes from putting all of your attention on one point.
Paying attention in this way is an act of mindfulness. And mindfulness has been proven to have countless benefits on emotional and psychological health. Studies have proven that mindfulness practices work to bring your attention to the present moment and enhance your ability to focus overall. In a recent article from Positive Psychology, current studies stated that “In the research it was discovered that mindfulness cannot only positively impact attention… [it] can help keep attention stable and help one remain focused on the present.” This is one of the great things about practicing yoga—what you learn on the mat about being mindful and maintaining focus—can be used in your everyday life.
Have you heard the expression, “monkey mind”? It refers to the incessant chatter that goes on in your head. Based on practically nothing, monkey mind can take your emotions on a roller coaster, leave you exhausted, and keep you spouting off at the mouth about things that really don’t matter, that are just neurotic, anxiety-driven nonsense. Pull up old episodes of Felicity. That entire show was monkey mind.
To deal with all the mess that anxiety churns up, we meditate. When it comes to alleviating anxiety and anxious thoughts, meditation has been proven to help tremendously. At the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital, psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, gives her take on monkey mind this way, “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power”. In her work, she uses mindfulness meditation practices to help her patients overcome their overpowering thoughts.
Most people go to yoga, twist and bend for about an hour, then bounce. What few yoga teachers teach (in this exercise-based fitness culture that yoga has squeezed itself in) is that yoga was meant to be a preparation for meditation. By exerting the body, you prepare it for stillness. Once in meditation, you can still the mind in a couple of ways. But before I share those, I want to clear up a misconception: It is almost impossible to completely quiet the mind. You may, at best, achieve a moment or two. Rather than silencing the mind, we are giving the mind something to focus on. And here’s how:
Focus on the breath. You can pay attention to the way air flows in and out your nose, feeling the sensations of air passing over your upper lip. Or you can focus on the feeling of your lungs expanding along with your belly on the inhale and the lungs contracting and belly emptying on the exhale. Paying attention to these gentle movements of the body gives the mind just enough to focus on that it slows down and gets quiet.
Mantra. Mantras are sounds or words that convey a meaning or message. “Om” is the most common mantra in the yoga world that you’d most quickly recognize. They can be spoken aloud or silently. Mantras are my go-to for getting out of monkey mind. When I’m stressed, can’t sleep, or when I’m stuck in a loop of catastrophe thinking (a loved one is late getting home- they must be dead on the freeway. You know that one.), mantras always work for me and bring me back to a calm and peaceful place.
Now that we have things like free yoga videos on YouTube, accessibility is much less of an issue. You can do yoga in your living room in your underwear if you want to, and not be bothered with all the unnecessary gobbledygook that yoga comes with. If you can look past all that to the essentials of what yoga was meant to be–a spiritual practice that aligns body and spirit through movement, breath, and meditation—you will find a treasure trove of tools that will carry you through all the days of your life.
Oh, and you may even live longer if you do yoga. So, there’s that.