…Mental fitness, that is.
As a society, I feel that we in the West are slowly becoming more curious about and open to exploring the more subtle aspects of life. Call it consciousness, awareness, introspection, yin – whatever you like, there is definitely a shift happening at the moment whereby people of a certain age are less likely to start lamenting their daily grind and struggles, and more aware of the possibilities which are out there to help them counteract the negative aspects and emotions which go along with them.
Maybe I’m being overly optimistic here, but I can feel it.
The increase in awareness of things like yoga, meditation and living overall healthier lifestyles definitely has a part to play in all of this, and it’s inspiring to note that it’s not just hemp-clad, flat-white wielding hipsters who are rolling out their mats to meditate. You only have to look as far as the nearest local school hall of soccer moms (GAA Mammies?) on a Wednesday night to see that the practices of yoga are designed to benefit and offer healing to absolutely everyone.
If body and self-awareness is hipster, then bring on the inevitable estuary of these ideas becoming ‘cool’ and flowing down into the mainstream!
Healing? Me? I Don’t Need Healing
A teacher of mine summed up the accessibility of yoga perfectly in one simple sentence last year. He said;
‘You might be new to yoga, but you’re not new to this body’.
This to me perfectly captures the essence of just how broad and deep the reach of yoga truly can go, for those willing to do the work to open up to it. We have lived in these bodies all our lives, and have only ever been taught to look at the outside – how fit, how toned, and how well things look or APPEAR. This gap in the connection which exists between our internal and external awareness is what is now shifting and beginning to heal, partly thanks to more open discussions surrounding mental health issues, but also due to our own willingness to do the work.
The healing potential the Hatha and Yin Yoga practices in particular have is something which I have experienced myself, having used them for the past 4 years to heal and realign myself firstly with my mental health, then with my physical, then with them both to enable me to function at a higher level of alignment, body-awareness and acceptance than ever before.
For this reason I’m a firm believer that Yoga can truly change lives. So many problems in society today can be traced back to people who are suffering with disconnection from their bodies and disillusionment from their emotions (ie, many of the other 500 million+ adults worldwide who suffer from depression and anxiety), (source), and although that’s an entire other post in itself, I feel that this lack of connection and search for meaning is something we have all experienced or will experience at one point or another.
The fitness industry which promotes external validation and focus on the physical body meeting a standard even they can’t seem to decide on is of course a factor in all of this, and as yoga DOES involve SOME aspect of physicality, it’s easy to see how it has gotten mixed up in all of these surface-level fitness trends.
Get Your Hands Off My Asana
It’s interesting to note however that the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the original ancient yogic text outlining the practices and underlying purpose of all yoga styles, curiously only actually mentions the word ‘asana’ (posture) once in its entirety.
Let me repeat that;
These physical shapes, stretches and mind-boggling feats of flexibility which have become the mainstream media’s image of yoga are only one teeny tiny aspect of the practice as it was originally intended. Over the years, our priorities and daily energy expenditure as humans has shifted and evolved, and yoga naturally alongside it has done the same. But the core of the message has remained, as Patanjali’s opening line of the Yoga Sutras outlines: ‘yogas chitta vritti nirodha’, translated from Sanskrit to mean: ‘Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind’.
Stillness and clarity first, movement and action second.
That is how it was intended.
The stillness ensures that the movement is done in a mindful, precise and physically safe way, and the movement encourages mindful integration of the breath and body as they move through space.
In a modern sense we can understand this to mean that Healing arises from cultivating stillness and acceptance of what is. The ‘fitness’ element of things on the other hand, suggests that something needs to change, and is therefore not good enough as it truly is.
See the difference??
While I’ll admit that there are certain types of Hatha practice which are aimed at moving energy and awareness and clearing (or ‘burning’) blockages in the nadi-system, they are only intended for practice after the student has mastered the concept of stilling his/her mind.
The eventual by-products of getting still and meditating or cultivating breath awareness before engaging the physical body might over time result in increased levels of physical fitness (or even a toned abdomen!), but in Patanjali’s day these were just by-products of the main goal.
Just something to consider the next time you decide to head to a yoga class instead of the gym.
Ask yourself – why am I going? Is it to get a ‘workout’, a ‘work-in’, or am I trying to combine the two so I don’t ever have to sit still with my mind and stuff all by myself?
(Disclaimer: I am of course all for staying fit and healthy, and I don’t condemn the use of gyms in any way. I just don’t feel that yoga should be practiced in them.)