At the heart of yoga is connection. But in a non-religious practice such as yoga, what exactly are we connecting to?
We are connecting to our breath. Without this, one could argue, we are merely stretching or exercising and while, obviously, there is nothing at all wrong with that, a yoga practice should offer something more. Something deeper. Something, if you are not repelled by the word, more spiritual. Re-discovering our breath can be a revelation and the benefits ripple out on many levels. In my classes I always begin with a time of breathing. This is a time of centring and quiet, an opportunity to fully arrive, to allow the stresses of the day to fall away and to mentally move yourself to a place of self-care and exploration. I often refer to this subtle shift from unconscious breathing, what you have been doing all day, to a time of conscious, or mindful, breathing. For many of us the breath is something we give scant thought too. Often, we are only aware of it during exercise, nerves or anxiety. The simple act of cultivating a more moment by moment awareness to our breathing can be extremely calming and can offer an immediate cure for the shallow, tight breaths common to modern living and high stress levels. It is what I like to call a Backpack Practice – one to carry with you at all times, which requires no equipment, no cost and no training. It can be performed anywhere and everywhere, completely undetected by other people. At a red light. In a meeting. Before talking to a group. On the train. Having a cup of tea in the garden after work. A few moments of conscious breathing and you can flick the switch from automatic pilot to fully in control in seconds. As you mindfully slow and deepen the breath, a number of other things begin to occur inside you behind the scenes. You switch to activating the parasympathetic nervous system, inducing a natural state of rest and restore and a move away from fight or flight. The heart rate begins to slow. The thoughts settle. A feeling of calm washes through all systems of the body. As you continue to focus, as you allow yourself to be aware of smaller and more subtle changes; the rise and expansion of the ribs and chest, the soft movement of the belly, a shift in your energy, the effects bed themselves in. It’s quick. It’s effective. It’s life changing. You begin to move your experience from the outer to a deeper, more vital inner experience. One of subtle energies, of nourishment, healing and wisdom. You begin to touch the still, calm centre at the heart of yourself, your anchor, your constant, that which remains undisturbed by the fluctuating waves of the outer experience. You glimpse peace. We are connecting with our inner stillness. With practice you will find you can check in with yourself effectively and accurately, using the quality of your breath as a reliable indicator of your current state of mind and stress levels. And the best part? You can then use that same breath to consciously turn around your felt experience. It is the most effective tool you have to alter your state of mind and it’s with you always.
Throughout my yoga classes, once the shift has occurred from unconscious to conscious breathing, I regularly remind my students to pause and re-connect. We move mindfully, synchronising our bodies with our breath. We draw on our breath to energise ourselves, flooding our bodies with prana as our practice becomes more dynamic, using it to generate our awesome inner fire, letting it carry us when the poses get hard. Then we use it to cool us down and finally, as we settle into relaxation, we let our awareness settle lightly on it, like a butterfly on a flower, enabling our minds and bodies to relax without losing that thread of connection to our deepest, calmest selves.
We are connecting to our bodies. Yoga is an invitation to rediscover your body. Just as it is. Right now. Loving the miracle that is our body and tending to it with care and compassion can be extremely challenging. But yoga loves to challenge, and it can be liberating to push yourself past boundaries and obstacles on the road towards not only self-acceptance, but self-love. For women this can be especially hard and we still have a tsunami of unhealthy and unhelpful persuasions to ward off daily. This is even true of the yoga world which on some platforms insists on portraying yoga as super lithe, super toned bodies perfuming feats of contortion and gymnastics. This is not yoga people! Yoga is for EVERY BODY. Tall, short, slim, overweight, bendy, stiff-as-a-board, loved, loathed, rich, poor and everything in between. Learning about our bodies, their current limits, their capabilities, their badass strength and their place in space is both fun and vital. Our bodies are talking to us all the time, telling us clearly what they need and don’t need, when to ramp it up and when to back off. When to go for it and when to rest. They naturally want to heal when they are broken or sick. And we can learn to tune in. Learn to pick up on the subtlest of whispers; I need this right now. We move mindfully, allowing pause and space throughout; in the stillness, in the moving into a pose, while holding a pose and in the moving out. We connect consciously through every forward bend, every balance, every raising of the arm. I don’t remind my students to experience every sensation within in the hands as they are held stretched out in warrior for a laugh. I want them to begin the exploration from outer to inner with curiosity and an open mind. To listen with every cell. To listen with their heart. To strengthen and stretch and travel the universe within themselves on the journey to completeness. We are connecting to exploration and wonder.
‘In a society which profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act’
We are connecting to our inner wisdom. Imagine a snow globe which has been enthusiastically shaken by an excited child. See how hard it is to clearly see the models inside. How hard it is to pick out any detail. But wait for the glitter to settle and all becomes clear. We are snow globes. Yogi snow globes. Our minds are more often than not in a state of agitated flux. Thoughts, lists, plans, regrets, dreams, all swirling around in a giant melee. Add in some churning emotions; a handful of excitement, fear, boredom, restlessness, sadness, joy and it’s all starting to get pretty busy in there. But here’s the exciting part…..regardless of what is going on, on the surface, whatever weather patterns of changeable emotions, thoughts and feelings are playing out, no matter how much you’re dealing with, no matter how unmanageable it all feels, that still, calm centre is there, too deep to be affected by the waves crashing and broiling on the surface. And that place; the soul, the self, what Mooji calls the ‘is-ness’, whatever you want to call it, is the source of a clear, innate wisdom. People search and search trying this and that, trying to locate this wisdom, the holy grail of inner peace, the words, the teaching, the practice that will reveal the answers. It’s right there. Inside you. Right now. You don’t need to go searching. What you do need to do it clear away the noise, the clutter, the obstacles and then, like the clouds parting to allow the sun’s warmth to burst through, your magical, shining, awesome wisdom will shine. (If you are interested in learning more about this then I can recommend researching, The Three Principles which is dedicated to enabling people to empower themselves by uncovering their uniqueness, power and joy. I can especially recommend the book, ‘Real – The Inside-Out Guide to Being Yourself,’ by Clare Diamond.)
In yoga we are connecting with that part of ourselves which may have been forgotten or overlooked. That was never nurtured or cherished. That years of negative self-talk or bad experience, or simply busyness, has obscured. Start travelling in. It is there. Waiting. Yoga will help you find yourself. Your real self and you may discover that when you find yourself that you want different things for you. A greater life’s purpose, a shift in perspective, a sudden desire for a deeper, more fulfilling, richer experience of life.
‘Tell me, that is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ – Mary Oliver
We are connecting to awareness. Our yoga practice encourages an exploration of really experiencing the moment through all the senses. Life isn’t happening yesterday. Nor can we live in a fictitious future. These are not real. The only life we have is the moment we are in. Right now. And so many of us are missing it. Literally letting life pass us by as we faff about, distracted and lost in fruitless thought. We are sleep-walking. Watching a concert through a three-inch phone screen. We are not noticing the world’s most sensational sunset because we’re facing the wrong way. But don’t worry. It’s dead easy. A mindfulness practice is quick to establish and quite pleasantly addictive (in a good way). Yoga helps us feel our experience moment to moment; the sensations in the body, the temperature of the air, the tingling and buzzing in your finger-tips, the tickle on your nose, the tightness in your hips, the screaming muscles in your back as you try to sit with good posture. We feel our breath. Really, really feel it; the cool air entering the nostrils, the sensation of fullness and release, the rise and fall and expansion of the chest. We cultivate an experience of feeling grounded, delighting in the connection with the Earth we stand on. We feel our muscles strongly, listening intently to their feedback. We surge with warrior energy, unfurling our wings. We fine tune our hearing, bringing close, not zoning out, the sounds outside the room. The birds and traffic and shouts of playing children. We become hyper aware. The clock in the room, the softly chanting music but also the strong breath of the person on the next mat, indeed the sound of our own flowing breath. A siren goes by. We hear it. An owl hoots. We hear it. It has rained during the night. We smell it. The wild garlic flowers. We notice. Our child talks to us. We look deeply into their eyes. We are becoming aware. Our life feels richer, fuller, more colourful. Time slows. We feel energised. Deeply, deeply alive. We are connecting to life. This life. Our life. Through awareness.
‘Recovery is a journey from a lack of awareness to awareness’ – Russell Brand
We are connecting to each other. Yoga is about community. A shared, supporting, nurturing journey. When we say a heartfelt ‘namaste’ we are acknowledging and honouring a deep, inner spirit common to us all, a recognition of the humanity we share above and beyond the superficial differences which suggest division. Across all spiritual traditions practitioners are encouraged to see beyond that which suggests difference and to focus on that which we all share. For Christians the Holy Spirit of divinity lives within us. In the Quaker tradition, ‘That of God in everyone,’ is a central premise, most commonly described using the language and imagery of an inner light. For Buddha, the human experience of impermanence, suffering and death, binds us all into a common humanity and recognising these basic fears and concerns in every one of us transcends the superficial ‘otherness’. Everyone is battling their own inner demons, no matter how long they have been practicing yoga, sitting in meditation or walking a spiritual path. We’re all putting on masks, trilling, ‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ while feeling anything but, struggling with identity, body image, finances, family, confidence, the list is endless. Yoga encourages you to show your vulnerability. I most certainly do not have my shit together and am more than happy to share that! In fact, what a relief to not have to pretend all the time. I’m certain that I am not alone in that. So, we treat each other with the utmost kindness. We hold each other up emotionally. And we give ourselves the same treatment. Well done for showing up. Well done for reaching out. Well done for giving yourself a break. Together can create a beautiful, healthy community based on understanding and a shared commitment to integrity and growth.
‘Your task is not to seek for love but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it’ – Rumi