Whenever you step onto the mat, you are a yogi. It simply means you are trying. There is no certificate or benediction – everyone from the least to the most, is a yogi. The most accomplished ones can control bodily functions, like a heartbeat or breath, but there are days when even the fanciest yogi cannot, and days when even you, a novice, can. Some days I can breathe out forever; others not.
Doing regular yoga is a measure of your well-being. If today you cannot balance on one foot or get yourself up into the Wheel, there is something subpar about your body – you are overtired, or unwell, or depressed. On other days, you will trudge to yoga class and find that you can do everything that is asked of you and more – your body and your mind are in fine shape. The body is a giant signal of well-being, and doing yoga gives it a way to send that signal loud and clear.
Research suggests that imagining little pac-men coursing through a cancerous body can affect the cancer. That sounds like magic or sleight-of-mind, but if you do yoga, you know that intense focus can affect bodily function. Focusing on a sore muscle, and there are numerous techniques for doing this, can soften it. If you are trying to get yourself up into a headstand and you are thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner, you might well not be successful at the headstand. We only use a small portion of our brain’s potential power, and yoga unleashes just a bit more of that power than we ordinarily harness.
“Be here now,” says yoga. “Pay attention.” I was raised a Christian Scientist, where mind over matter is all the healing there is (more complicated than that, but that’s a subject for another time). In Christian Science, one tries to elevate oneself above the body, to concentrate on the Divine. In yoga one dives deeply into the body, focusing on the parts and functions that are needed in the moment. For me, the latter is more successful, and anybody can do it, no study needed.
When twisting deeply, the yoga teacher may remind you that this helps digestion. When the head is below the heart, blood flow to the brain is increased. When the legs are above the body, lymph flow is reversed and refreshed – lymph does not have a pump like the heart to propel it. Your teacher may remind you of the 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles and tendons in the foot. The 52 bones in your feet make up about 25 percent of all the bones in your body. Can you lift each toe individually? In the beginning, I could not, but now I can rely on that pinky toe, and have made progress which each of the others. The affects posture, movement, and balance. Knowledge of the body, and a hint of control over it, rests in the subconscious as you walk, eat, and live your life. Feldenkrais practitioners call their classes “lessons” because the knowledge you gain changes the way you move and live, even if you are not actively aware of it. Yoga does, too.
A good yoga teacher will provide infinite versions of the same pose because the secret to avoiding injury is not to push yourself past your ability. It is NOT a competition. A few days ago I was affected by heavy humidity and did not have much energy or enthusiasm. I did the most basic forms of several postures which felt out of my reach that day. When I was recovering from a torn rotator cuff, I avoided Downward Facing Dog and any other shoulder-intensive poses for months. Tailoring each pose to your ability each day is essential.
You gradually learn to recognize the difference between challenge and pain. Folded into a position which asks the body to do things not done in daily life, you may feel claustrophobic, or the discomfort of an extension or stretch may begin to panic you, but gradually you learn to distinguish between discomfort and pain. You can sit in a twist forever and it will never hurt you, though sometimes your brain insists that you untwist yourself. You should be moving! You can’t control your environment while sitting in this twist! Resisting this insistence becomes easier and easier on the mat and in daily life. Some call it discipline.
It takes a while to accept that you have nothing to prove, especially nothing to prove to someone else, and that is a valuable lesson throughout life. No matter what you are doing, whether on the mat or elsewhere, you can never do more than you are capable of – some people will never be able to touch their toes, but they might have the strength of a lion. Yoga is a lesson in humility, and also a lesson in strength.
Every time I hit the mat, I do something new, because every day my body and mind are different; my left side is different from my right, my mind is bold or timid, tired or fresh. Every time I take a yoga class, I am invited to push myself past my habits, past my endurance. And that in itself is an excellent habit. In the small accomplishments of your daily life, it becomes easier to do things right. It becomes easier and easier to turn the ordinary, the customary, the easy into an accomplishment. By training and challenging your body, which is very healthy on the purely physical plane, you are also training and challenging your brain, and changing your relationship with everything and everyone around you, always for the better.
Embracing the further challenge of stillness and acceptance through meditation is a next step, capable of affecting deep transformation. One step at a time.