What is yoga? I think I finally figured it out...

Ok, maybe I’m a bit slow getting on this bandwagon but for the benefit of others out there who may not yet have figured out what this yoga thing is all about, I offer you my recent eye-opening experience.

At the risk of sounding judgmental, I will tell you honestly that from my limited previous experience with yoga classes, I’d developed the perception that it was a workout for wimps.  Personally, I love to run, lift weights, get my heart-pumping and feel like I’ve really pushed myself physically when I work out - and yoga left me feeling like I was ready for a nap.  So going forward I steered clear.

Until recently.

Over the holidays, I attended my very first retreat.  The whole reason I signed up was because one of my goals last year was to work with a teacher who could help me enhance my meditation practice.  As a coach, I’m deeply interested in the mind and brain and finding ways to help my clients (and myself!) develop mental skills that transform the way we think, feel and perform.  The retreat offered a practical way for me to expand my neuroscience knowledge under the guidance of an experienced instructor.

Katy (the instructor) was fantastic.  The fact that she wasn’t too "woo-woo" for me (I used to be an engineer so I am naturally skeptical of any fluffy, unsubstantiated assertions) and provided scientific explanations for things made it easy for me to digest her teachings.

In addition to meditation, yoga was on offer at the retreat so in the spirit of being open to learning, I decided to give it another shot. 

I’m so glad I did.

 

Breaking it down

I now understand that yoga is not meant to be a CrossFit-alternative.  While some people may indeed experience some physical changes if they engage in yoga a few times a week, yoga is actually a 'mind-body integration practice' to be done alongside, not in place of, heart-pumping physical workouts.

As I understand it, the physical poses and movements in yoga are used to create sensations, which are naturally passed through the body’s nervous system to the brain.  Once there, we have the opportunity to observe what arises for us and practice choosing how to respond.  

For example, we might notice that one leg is a bit more flexible than the other today.  If we were to go through the motions mindlessly, we might push ourselves a bit harder on the tighter side to try to match the pose we were able hold on the more flexible side.  But if we are mindful and notice the signals are body is sending us, we can also notice the thoughts that begin to appear in our minds.  

In this example, we might notice that our immediate thoughts are judgmental, lamenting that in the past we used to be more flexible.  Having noticed this, we can then choose to deliberately take a more accepting, constructive perspective (eg "This seems to be my edge for today.").

 

Building self-awareness

Noticing the signals our body is sending us (a process called ‘interoception') and being able to regulate our responses are critical components of self-awareness.

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, has written that “Self-awareness and empathy are (along with self-mastery and social skills) domains of human ability essential for success in life.  Excellence in these capacities helps people flourish in relationships, family life, and marriage, as well as in work and leadership.  Of these four key life skills, self-awareness lays the foundation for the rest."

In his book Mindsight, Dr Dan Siegel explains the importance of building up neural pathways that link the body and brain, a process called 'vertical integration'. 

Yoga appears to be a fantastic way to practice mindfulness, interoception, and self-acceptance, which all contribute to strengthening the neural pathways Dr Siegel refers to and deepening self-awareness, a critical skill for success in life and leadership.

To be fair, there are many different kinds of yoga practices out there and some of them are very much focused on looking good rather than enhancing the mind-body connection.  But I feel enlightened now as to why I would want to incorporate a yoga practice into my life in the first place. 

You can count me on the bandwagon now.