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.