Yoga - a path to health and wellbeing
By Mara Musso, BWY Dip
As a yoga teacher with over 25 years’ teaching experience, it has been an honour to witness time and time again the transformative effects that the ancient practice of yoga has when fully embraced.
The benefits are far-reaching and I am humbled by how life-changing a regular and consistent yoga practice can be.
To a casual observer, yoga looks very much like a physical practice where we make shapes with the body, we stretch parts of the body, etc. However, there is one major difference : in yoga we develop enteroception, which is awareness of how the body feels on the inside.
Developing awareness is probably what differentiates yoga the most from other physical practices.
When newcomers start practising yoga, there is often a disconnect with body and mind. To a trained eye this can manifest as a difficulty in connecting with certain parts of their body, an inability to isolate movement to one joint for instance. It is vital that the teacher emphasizes that the student needs to work in unison with their body, learning to listen to what their body is telling them and adjusting the practice to suit their needs. These needs change from one day to the next, so it is essential that tuning into the body happens every time we step on the mat.
It is not easily done, especially if we have been brought up in a culture which promotes quick fixes. Yes, there is a pill for pretty much anything these days. However, if we learn to listen to the body, it will often tell us where the problem lies. For example tension headaches can originate from tension held in the neck and shoulders or upper back. These areas are notorious for holding tension. I have encountered on many occasions that backaches disappear with a regular yoga practice and that tension headaches also usually improve.
Yoga students are often very pleased with the results, but also quite incredulous that a simple yoga practice can be so therapeutic and that it can yield such results.
The therapeutic power of yoga doesn’t stop there, it goes much further. In fact, headaches or backaches disappearing are only the tip of the iceberg. A lot more goes on beneath the surface.
Mentally the practice of yoga has a profound impact too. It has been found to alleviate feelings of depression, anxiety, apathy and more. Sometime this is the main reason why some people start practising yoga.
Often it is when students start to see results that they feel encouraged and motivated to practise more regularly and this is when things often start to happen for them.
As most of us now live in a fast-paced society, it is imperative that we find something that slows us down and which connects us to our inner being and yoga is ideal for that!
If we don’t find a way to slow down, we run the risk of burning out which is extremely damaging. Burnout happens when we place too many demands on ourselves for too long and we ignore the signs that our body sends to us. Our internal systems were not designed to deal with stress – whether real or perceived – for a prolonged period of time. Our nervous system, which evolved over millions of years, is excellent at protecting us from imminent danger, like a rhino charging at us. Our sympathetic nervous system instantly kicks in when there is a threat to life and it kickstarts an array of responses which help us deal with the emergency quickly and efficiently.
Unfortunately it is not sophisticated enough to differentiate whether the emergency is a rhino charging at us or it’s about missing an important work deadline. The fight or flight response that the sympathetic nervous system initiates in us is the same. Once the emergency is over, the body reverts back to the parasympathetic nervous system being activated. Things start to go wrong when the sympathetic nervous system is continuously being activated, resulting in chronic stress. It’s a bit like the switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic mode becomes a bit rusty, doesn’t work so well and we find ourselves stuck on sympathetic mode. This creates havoc in the body as we are not meant to live life on a sympathetic on-switch.
A regular yoga practice becomes literally a life-saver then because it forces our body into parasympathetic mode. Often I catch my students yawn when practising yoga. It is not because they are bored but because they are resetting their nervous system to parasympathetic mode, aka the ‘Rest and Digest’, which is replenishing and nurturing for the body’s organs. When the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge, it carries out its essential day-to-day maintenance and repair, it does its own internal healing.
The practice of yoga almost always starts with a teacher on a yoga mat, but I always hope that my students feel empowered to make yoga an integral part of how they live their lives by incorporating techniques to help them deal with whatever life throws at them. I am delighted when a student comes back after a week off and tells me that their back ‘went’ …. but they were ok because they knew what to do!
I encourage my students to regularly use the techniques that they learn in the yoga class: there are breathing techniques which can help them to calm down when they feel anxious or agitated or when they wake up in the middle of the night and are unable to go back to sleep. There are simple stretches and short practices which they can incorporate into their working day to counteract the negative effects of sitting at a desk all day, meditation techniques that they can use during their commute to work which will ensure that they arrive at work feeling calm and collected and ready for the day ahead and many more.
And little by little their life begins to change for the better and it begins to heal. When I see this happen in my students I know my work is done.