A friend arrived early to one of my yoga classes this week and told me that she had just come from a Weight Watchers class where the group discussed nutrition and exercise. This caused my friend to reflect on her yoga practice. She had been taking yoga fairly regularly for a about 6 months now. A bit skeptical at first, she had come to realize how differently she felt now from when she began. Yet she marvelled: “If people were to look into the room”, she said,” they wouldn’t think we were doing anything beneficial”. Think about it. Sometimes we just sit on our heels or with our legs crossed, often with our eyes closed, simply breathing. Or we might be on our hands and knees rolling the spine in a movement called cat and cow. Sometimes we lie on our tummies and just lift our legs or arms in what might look like a easy move. Then there is Mountain Pose which can look like just standing in place. Finally, of course, there is Savasana, the yoga pose that is practiced at the end (and sometimes elsewhere) in every yoga class. This can easily look like nap time.
So why are these seemingly simple movements so powerful and, in fact, sometimes quite challenging? It is important to remember that one of the main reasons we practice yoga, and I would add Pilates in here, too, is to connect the mind with the body. Surprisingly, many of us have lost touch with our bodies. Perhaps we have experienced some kind of physical trauma, or suffered from an injury or illness that has left us with a difficult recovery and maybe even permanent changes to our bodies. Sometimes we have struggled with our weight, trying all types of programs and practices to achieve some kind of ideal that media projects to us. In all of these cases and more, the body becomes the enemy. It just won’t respond the way you want it to. Why would you ever want to get in touch with a body like yours?
Yoga and Pilates can help you change that thinking. For one thing, all of these reasons why your body no longer works the way you want it to are just stories you tell yourself. Sometime others have contributed to those stories in ways that are less than honorable, but the end result is still a story. You or someone else made the story up, but you’ve allowed yourself to believe it all these years. Believing it doesn’t mean it’s true. Since you’ve bought into the story, you can also change it. Yes, physical trauma and other changes in your body, including aging, are real. But if the story you are telling yourself is that the changes are bad and interfering with your ability to do the things you want to do, that’s the story you can change. “Good” and “bad” are simply value judgments. They have no meaning unless you give them meaning. In some cases you may not be able to do the exact moves that you used to do in the same way you used to do them, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a different way you can at least do some of them.
This is why bringing your mind back to your body is so important. Your body is not the enemy. It is a miraculous apparatus that breathes and has a myriad of systems working in concert to keep you alive. Your body wants you to live. And it wants to move. Sometimes not everything will move well, but the body is also an amazing healing machine. Healing can take much longer than we want it to. In fact, it can take so long that we think it won’t ever happen. And there may be barriers that won’t allow the body to heal the way we want it to. Our lives may not be long enough to accommodate all the healing we think we need.
But every living thing clings to life. And every day is a new day in which change can happen. We all know examples of incredible instances of survival. If your body had given up on you, you wouldn’t be here. So don’t give up on your body. Get to know it. Feel its limitations without discouragement and find its abilities for celebration. You might be surprised to find that you are capable of much more than you think you are. There are no promises in life, so no particular outcome is guaranteed. If you let go of expectations for outcomes and just concentrate on what you can do right now, you might find that no matter how little that seems, you will begin to feel better. Just standing in Mountain Pose or sitting upright in a chair, feeling your feet connecting to the earth, adjusting your alignment and breathing can improve your posture. That’s huge! I constantly marvel at the people who come to my classes and say things like “I can’t get down on the floor because I can’t get back up again.” Time after time I’ve seen the look of amazement on their faces when they find themselves standing. They had been concentrating so much on following the moves and helping their bodies in and out of changing positions they didn’t even realize they had moved from the floor to standing. What’s an hour of peace from your constantly chattering mind worth? In my book it’s priceless!
So when your sitting in “Easy Pose” or lying on your back, recognize that this is a time to check in with your body. Where do you have sensations? Can you allow your breathing to help you relax any tension you’re feeling? Is your neck tense or your jaw or your shoulders? If you’re experiencing pain, does releasing tension help you to feel less pain? Maybe not this time, but practice is what it’s all about. Each pose may not look like much but there is a purpose. Certain muscles are being strengthened. Others are being permitted to relax. Most of us have pain due to a lifetime of creating imbalances. Our lifestyles – sitting, driving, bending and lifting improperly, moving without paying attention, being in a hurry, and on and on – all contributed to those imbalances. Yoga and Pilates light the way to getting back in touch with how your body is actually built to move. This is different for each of us. Human beings come in all shapes and sizes. All are right. None are wrong. They are just different. Get in touch with your own body and it will accept that attention and return it with a little greater ease of movement and maybe, even, peace of mind.