Over the past hundred years, and particularly in the last decade, yoga has exploded in the west. In London there are hundreds of speciality yoga studios and a growing number of people are training to teach. This boom in the popularity of yoga I’m sure is no surprise to anyone who has practiced yoga for a while. When you start, you just can’t seem to stop.
In the west now, a large focus is based on the physical benefits of yoga, and not without good reason. Yoga is an incredible way to exercise. Yoga practices can be fast and strong, which strengthens and tones the body as you learn to support your own bodyweight through different postures. The physical ♯Girlgains that can be seen after years of practice are huge, for building functional muscle for a range of postures, and of course it greatly improves flexibility. The asana (postures) in yoga have always been a core part of the yogic traditions, dating back thousands of years in India, to prepare oneself for any challenges the body might encounter. Having a strong body will help to lead a healthy and happy life, and ward off injuries. But often the mental benefit of a yoga practice is lost when the asana is practiced purely with a focus on the physical body. To reap the benefits yoga can bring to BOTH mind and body, I believe starting to tune in to the deeper mental practices during yoga is the key.
A large part of yoga is Awareness. This is where, for me anyway, yoga differs from any other form of exercise, and it becomes a great accompaniment for anyone who is training hard for another sport. When we bring the awareness into the body as we practice, we consider what we really need from our practice. When yoga is practiced with awareness it deepens the connection we have between the mind and the body and allows us to really feel what we so often forget to acknowledge. You tune in to how all the muscles are feeling, how supple the joints are, how your breathing is, your heartbeat – and on a mental level – how busy the mind is, how tired you are, how stressed you are... a huge number of qualities that might normally be dismissed! And with this awareness you start to ask yourself; does your body really need to do a strong, hard practice today? Or maybe you recognise that the body is sore and needs to rest? Have you been sitting at a desk all day, and can feel tightness in the joints and the back? Perhaps a flowing, opening sequence is what you need. Or maybe, you recognise that you have been being too hard on yourself recently, and the best practice for you is one that focuses on accepting how you are right now.
In the western world today, we are all very goal driven. We have big dreams and aspirations, which we strive to achieve. We have physical ideals, which we train so hard to reach. We push ourselves to the limit physically and mentally. This can often leave us finding it hard to listen to what the body needs, and instead thinking more about whether we’ve reached whatever target we’ve set ourselves. I believe there is no harm in dreaming big and working hard to achieve our dreams; on the contrary, the best things in life usually require hard work. But often along the path we take to reach our goals, we lose touch with how our body and mind is; we can forget to look after ourselves along the way.
This is where the incredible ♯Girlgains arise from yoga. There are numerous studies to show how yoga can reduce stress and anxiety, improve concentration and overall mental health. Yoga is a truly nourishing practice from a mental and physical perspective. Unlike most other exercise, yoga encourages acceptance. Acceptance of exactly how your mind and body are at the present moment. In yoga you learn to remove all judgement. This is especially important in a world where the media is often creating unrealistic standards for women to live up to physically. In yoga, self-love and acceptance are just as much of a core practice, (if not far more important!) as it is to bend further or learn to twist into a pretzel like shape for an Instagram photo. Yoga has taught me to set positive ‘intentions’ for myself, rather than goals which focus on changing myself.
I believe yoga has the possibility of becoming a way into a deeper, more positive relationship with ones body. I think yoga fits well with the ♯Girlgains movement, as in yoga we always gain something important from our practice. Weather that comes in the form of a physically demanding practice to blow off steam and gain strength, or a more meditative practice to gain some quietness and stillness, to find some time for yourself before a frantic day ahead. Allow the asana (positions) to become part of a deeper practice, a mental practice that includes how we treat others and ourselves. Once that happens you can experience yoga’s benefits on every level of your being – physical, mental, emotional and social. If you approach yoga with the intention off learning more about yourself rather than changing more of yourself, you’ll gain awareness into what’s truly best for you.