Yoga appears to be a physical pursuit, a practice designed to improve flexibility, strength and balance. And sure, it does all of these things. But the real purpose of yoga, certainly in traditional Hindu thought from whence it originates, is to gain mastery over not your body but your mind. So, the postures we associate with yoga are not the end in themselves but a means to the ultimate end.
Despite the fact that I have been practicing yoga for more than six years, I am only just beginning to understand that yoga is about much more than the postures.
One reason for this is the new yoga teacher whose classes I started taking after I moved to Hobart earlier this year. Instead of one hour classes, her classes ran for one and a half hours. This meant there was time in each class to go that little bit more slowly and thus connect that little bit more deeply with the breath in each posture. And she really made a point of emphasising the breath, regularly reminding us that “breath initiates movement”.
This second phrase in particular has stuck with me, more so than the words I have heard so many times from other yoga teachers, reminders to “come back to the breath” or variations thereof. Breath initiates movement.
There are, I think, several ways to interpret this deceptively simple phrase. Here are the two I like:
- There can be no movement without breath, breath is the life-giving force powering yoga practice, indeed powering our whole existence; and
- The breath is primary, the movement is secondary, meaning the focus should be on the former, with the latter following naturally.
These slower-paced, breath-focused classes forced me to slow down, something I am not naturally inclined to do. For example, I’m much more comfortable hiking or walking through nature than I am just sitting in it. Similarly, I’m much more comfortable moving through the postures during a yoga class than I am staying put for longer in one posture or doing pranayama or breath work.
So I come to the other reason why it is only now that I am beginning to understand that yoga is about much more than the postures. Until this year, I was a student. And as a student, there is ALWAYS more work you can do. Consequently, anything other than study which occupied my time had to clearly serve another end (eg fitness, income etc). While doing yoga postures qualified as exercise, slower yoga practices seemed a waste of precious time.
I had opportunities to do slower-paced, restorative yoga classes when I lived in Melbourne. My wonderful yoga teacher there offered them every month in fact. Part of me liked the idea of going, but I rarely ended up going along. While the benefits of a regular yoga class seemed clear to me (improved flexibility, strength and balance), the benefits of a restorative class were less obvious. Sure, it was a good exercise in self-care and mindfulness, but it didn’t clearly serve another end – it wasn’t exercise, nor was it study or work or anything else I could tick off a list.
On the odd occasion where I did do a restorative yoga class, I felt guilty afterwards. Sure, I’d done that self-care/mindfulness thing people say you should do, but I hadn’t accomplished anything. Instead, valuable time which I felt I should be capitalising on had been chewed up with breathing and stillness.
Now that I work full time, this dynamic has changed substantially because now there is a clear delineation between work and life. When, as a student still, I expressed optimism that full time work would be good for me, people warned against my optimism, reminding me that work comes with its own stresses and challenges. And it sure does, but these are confined to a specific time period. They are things to be managed within working hours which my employer has no expectation I will do anything about on a weeknight or over the weekend. And suddenly, because someone else is telling me I am allowed to have down-time, I feel I have permission to do just that, making it easy for me to set aside my work once working hours are over.
So suddenly, activities which may not appear to directly serve another end are options for me. I have the time and permission to do them – there is nothing else I feel I should be doing instead.
In a sense, this is a sad indictment on my ability to take care of myself. As a student, I was never able to set the boundaries required to have guilt-free down time. I think this is because it was up to me to set these boundaries for myself and ultimately, I didn’t feel I was entitled to the guilt-free down time so never gave it to myself. I would have down time, but there would always be that little conscientious voice in the back of my mind urging me back to the books. Whatever work I did, it was never enough and thus I could never relax, because there was always more to do.
Now that the permission is granted externally, I feel able to sink fully into my down time. And this has allowed me to, among other things, begin to understand that yoga is about much more than the postures. In particular, the centrality of the breath is really becoming clear to me. And so yoga is becoming not just exercise but a form of meditation and mindfulness which allows me to return to my body and return to the life-giving force that is my breath. Instead of forcing myself through practice, which I have at times done in the past, I am surrendering to practice, allowing my breath to guide my movement. Breath initiates movement. And allowing this has slowed down my practice, has deepened my practice, has strengthened it beyond what I could ever have imagined.
Love, hope and peace from Emma.