If you can breathe, then yoga is for you. Yes, that does mean absolutely everyone. Avoiding yoga by saying it’s not your thing or you tried it once is like saying that you’ve tried food and it just didn’t work out for you so you’ve decided not to eat. Yoga is merely connecting to your breathe and your body wholeheartedly. Every single day. Every single minute. Every single moment. In a simple seated twist or in a challenging backbend. And, yes, that is not a ‘mere’ feat. And how you get to that place will be different for everyone. The magic of yoga asanas (the physical postures) is that they are designed to take you to this place of connection. To unlock the mystery of what is holding you back. To release the pent up emotions. The ones that are much more subtle then the overt twins of anger and anxiety that can usually be fended off by a good, long run. Emotions like shame, self-doubt, and contempt. No wonder you avoid a yoga practice. It can feel super icky. And it’s not the hurts-so-good burn of lactic acid build-up during a spin class. This is down-and-dirty, how-can-I-ever-look-someone-in-the-eye-again, kind-of hurt. But then you stay with it, you don’t avoid it, you breathe through it, and suddenly you’ve moved into a different pose/place/time and all is effortless. You feel light and powerful and grateful.
Yoga is not balancing on one arm while touching your toes to the top of your head. Yoga is not sitting in lotus for hours without moving a muscle. Yoga is not folding your sweaty self in half in a heated room. And, yet, if that is the yoga that works for you, then it is. Yoga is about viciously carving out time for yourself to work on yourself outside of the physical plane. It is the time you take to connect your body, mind, and spirit. The practice you do in order to sit with yourself and your breath in silence without wanting to bolt from the situation. Without wanting your current reality to be different. Yoga works on you energetically, emotionally, and spiritually. If you don’t buy that, it doesn’t mean that yoga is not for you, it only means you haven’t done enough yoga. You haven’t fully surrendered to the possibilities, to the potentiality of really doing yoga. This is a phenomenon that you can feel. It very visibly shows up in your life through the radical as well as the minute changes that occur once you commit to your practice.
I used to run a lot. I still do. Just not as much. Running felt wonderful and cathartic and, for awhile afterwards, I was at peace. But it was never sustainable. Quite easily I would find myself jolted out of the flow and into reactive mode. Practicing more asanas, more often, allowed me to finally sit in mediation and sustain the peace. For days and even weeks. I’m still working on longer stretches of peaceful bliss and I always will be.
Every athlete, exerciser, active person, and couch potato can benefit from stretching and most of us stretch daily whether intentional or not. Oftentimes daily stretching becomes habitual and thoughtless. We may not be getting the maximum benefit from from this important routine if we continually tune-out. I believe incorporating some yogic principles and even yoga asanas (or postures) into your stretching routine will maximize the physical and mental benefits of stretching.
First, start with being more mindful while doing your current stretching routine. Take those standard stretches you do every day and play with doing them in silence (no music) and with your eyes closed. Instead of counting the seconds you are holding the stretch, instead focus on your breath. See how slowly you take an in-breath and an out-breath and then practice equalizing the duration of each in-breath and out-breath (count during this portion, if needed). This often has the effect of taking you out of your mind and more fully into your body which can lead to deepening the stretch.
Second, bring even more mindfulness to your stretching by taking your attention to the parts of your body that are resisting the stretch. For instance, visualize your breath reaching into your hamstrings while you are in a forward bend. Over time you will actually feel a release of tension in the body part in which you are directing your thoughts and breath. You will actually be able to feel your body let you in. Notice which muscle groups contract and which lengthen for each stretch.
Third, instead of just stretching one muscle group at a time, you can choose a yoga posture that stretches the particular muscle group you are focusing on and so much more. For example, Revolved Triangle will stretch the hips, hamstrings, and IT band while also opening up the back, shoulders, waist, and arms.
Why use this opportunity to practice mindfulness? Bringing more attention and awareness into your body can only be good for your workouts (as well as your mental health!). Mindfulness practices have been shown to slow heart rate, reduce stress, anxiety, and tension, bring clarity and creativity, and foster compassion for both ourselves and others. Bringing mindfulness to the mundane, such as stretching or dishwashing or commuting, is the perfect practice for being able to use mindfulness at times when the stakes are higher such as intimate relationships, work projects, or health issues.