How Yoga helps my wellbeing
I started practicing yoga about 8 years ago and have been training to be a yoga teacher for nearly a year. When I first started practicing yoga, I dabbled in and out before becoming more consistent, but I kept coming back to it because it helped me feel better. I couldn’t explain why at the time, I just knew it made me feel better. I noticed how, on the days I practiced yoga, I felt more relaxed and would have a good night’s sleep.
I began to look forward to ‘getting on the mat’, especially if I’d had a difficult day. Whether I’m at a yoga class, or following along to an online video, doing yoga feels like permission to press pause and take a break from the day.
The movements and poses encourage me to tune into my body and to sync up my breath with my movement, which feels very grounding and soothing. It brings me out of my stressful, anxious or unhelpful thoughts and into the present moment. Strenuous sequences and holding challenging poses are a good way for me to channel stressful, anxious or frustrated feelings into something that feels rewarding. It’s as if the exercise and stretching my muscles releases tension that has built up.
An energetic sequence, or a practice involving lots of open postures, can help to boost my mood and give me energy if I’m feeling a little low. Other, faster movements give me a feeling of ‘shaking off’ whatever may be bothering me that day.
I also enjoy the breathing techniques and pranayama involved in yoga. Pranayama is just the name for breathing techniques that were developed thousands of years ago in India, where many yoga practices were born. The techniques involve controlling the breath in different ways. ‘Prana’ translates to something like ‘life force’ and ‘yama’ means ‘control and mastery of’. When practiced for a few minutes on a regular basis, these techniques can be very powerful in relieving stress and bringing about relaxation, as they influence the nervous system. Some breathing techniques can also boost energy.
One of the first pranayama techniques I learned is called Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing). I learned it from this Yoga With Adriene video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VwufJrUhic It’s a great technique for relaxation and reducing anxiety. It’s nice to set aside quiet time to sit and practice techniques like this, but I’ve also done it while sitting by my computer at work! It’s a technique that’s safe for most people to do, but if you have a medical condition such as asthma, COPD, or any other lung or heart concern, speak to your doctor before trying it out.
When I look back, I realise how much strength and flexibility I’ve developed since starting yoga. I’m still by no means ‘very flexible’! But before I started yoga, I had very stiff limbs and joints from not doing much physical activity. These changes help me in my day to day life – things like being able to reach up to shelves that I wasn’t able to before (very important if someone has tried to hide your favourite chocolate on a high up shelf!), being able to squat for a long time to take close up photos of flowers, being able to climb when needed (it happens more often than you think…). Developing these abilities has helped my confidence and self-esteem, which in turn helps my overall wellbeing.
Sometimes, during a practice, I’ll realise that I can move into a posture a little further or can do something I couldn’t do before. When this happens, I feel such a sense of achievement and I take a moment to celebrate the progress I’ve made, and appreciate how dedicating time and effort to this practice makes a difference.
Yoga also has a strong philosophical aspect, which focuses on simple ideas about how to live a fulfilling life. Learning about this has slowly and subtly shifted my mindset about life and dealing with situations day to day. I’m only human, so of course sometimes stress and negative thoughts can get the better of me, but for most part, I deal with things much better than I did in the past.
There are several books about the philosophy of yoga. If this is something you’re interested in, a good starting point is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali ( https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-yoga-sutras-of-patanjali/swami-satchidananda/9781938477072 ).
I now practice yoga and breathing techniques almost every day. This isn’t always for large chunks of times – it’s mostly 20 – 30 minutes per day (sometimes just 10 mins!) and a weekly class that’s longer. Sometimes obviously, life can get in the way, and I end up going for a few days without yoga. During these times, it’s interesting to notice how quickly negative thoughts and anxious feelings start to creep back in. I can even feel my muscles holding onto tension. I feel relieved then when I get chance to do a bit of yoga and build the habit back into my life. I can’t imagine my life without yoga at this point.
If you’ve been thinking of trying yoga, why not give it a go? There are lots of ways to have a go these days – a class in your community, an online class, or online videos on websites like YouTube. Or maybe there’s another hobby or physical activity that helps your wellbeing. Take a moment to think about how this activity helps you.