We all know that exercise makes us feel better, and yoga is no exception. Yoga postures such as standing poses tone muscles and increase heart rate. More than that, simply putting our bodies in new and unfamiliar postures can enhance mood. Think of how often in your day you slump: when you drive or work at a computer, or feel depressed. Backbends counteract all of this, so that we may find after a back bending class that our physical posture has changed our mind and our attitude, and we are filled with a sense of joy and well-being. This can happen after most exercise, but one difference is that yoga increases awareness of the body, so that in our daily lives we are less likely to fall back into bad habits in those typical situations.
A second difference between yoga and most physical exercise is that yoga has a way of stilling the mind, and making it calmer. If you’ve ever tried to meditate you know that the mind is not naturally still. This is why yoga starts with the physical body, and uses the body as an object to train the mind, ultimately bringing them together in a sort of ‘meditation in action.’ The way this works is contained in the meaning of the word yoga, which is Sanskrit for yoke. Yoga is a joining, or yoking, of the body to the mind, and of the mind/body, in turn, to the soul.
When we come into a pose such as Uttanasana, the “standing forward bend,” we are not simply bending over. The teacher directs our attention from part to part in the body: “Lift and spread the toes. Lift the kneecaps. Roll the thighs in, spread the back thighs out, draw the abdomen to the spine.” As we do this, we begin to focus. The worries of the day are crowded out as we attend to toes, kneecaps, thighs, abdomen. This kind of attention to detail might be difficult at first, but students soon develop the ability to focus. As BKS Iyengar wrote, “If I keep you without allowing your mind to go elsewhere…I can say I have done some good in this world!” When asked why his method of yoga was so precise and physical, Iyengar replied, “When you sit in a chair, which part of you sits?” His point was that all of you sits—your body, your mind and your soul—because all are connected. The connection is already there, of course. We simply have to make the effort to see it. And no part of that effort is wasted. Even a small glimpse can begin to transform us.
Molly McNett teaches Iyengar yoga at Pranayama Yoga Studio, 517 East State Street, between abreo and the Irish Rose. The next 8-week session starts January 2. Please visit the Pranayama Yoga website, or call 815-968-YOGA for class schedules and more information.
If you haven’t tried it yet, you’re probably about to. According to a 2016 study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, there are 36.7 yoga practitioners in the US, and 80 million or more say they are “somewhat or very likely” to get on the mat in the next year. Because of this growing enthusiasm for the ancient art, a beginner has many styles to choose from. In Iyengar Yoga, named for its Indian founder BKS Iyengar, a typical studio has a wall full of blankets, bolsters, belts and wedges, or even a wooden back bending bench. The first question a new student might ask is, “Why so many props?”
There are three main reasons props are used in yoga. Let’s say I’m doing a familiar pose such as Trikonasa, the ‘triangle’ pose. In this pose I turn my feet sideways, reach one hand down to the floor, and straighten the other arm up, in line with my shoulder. But what if my hand won’t touch the floor? I could use a block outside my front ankle, to bring that ‘floor’ up a few inches. But even if I can reach my hand to the floor, I may only be able to achieve this by closing down my chest and ribcage. If that’s the case, putting my bottom hand on the block might help me master an important aspect of the pose: opening the chest and turning the ribcage toward the ceiling. Even flexible people might use a prop in this second way: to “educate” the body and improve alignment. The third reason we use props is to stay longer in a pose. In Triangle, putting the hand on a block—or even doing the pose with the back at a wall—can help you be in Triangle longer. When you stay in a pose longer, many interesting things happen. You can stretch more, for one thing. You can safely and gradually build stamina. You have time to examine your body in space. And it’s also the case that longer holds can bring a more meditative state to your practice, which is one of the higher goals of yoga.
If you’ve never done yoga before, Iyengar is a great place to start. Props can make poses accessible to everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. You’ll learn correct alignment, avoid injury, and develop more flexibility, strength and stamina. But if you prefer hatha yoga, flow yoga, or hot yoga—or even if your practice is limited to Rodney Yee CDs in your basement—you can still benefit from a session of Iyengar to deepen your practice, or from dropping in on a class now and then to make sure your form is correct.
Molly McNett teaches Iyengar yoga at Pranayama Yoga Studio, 517 East State Street, between abreo and the Irish Rose. The next 8-week session starts Jan. 2. Please visit the Pranayama Yoga website, or call 815-968-YOGA for class schedules and more information.