Not long ago, I had an epiphany.
My whole life, I thought of my body as something that was separate from “my Self.” First, my Christian upbringing taught me that when our bodies die, our soul lives on. And that we must control our bodies so that our soul can life comfortably in the afterlife. Then, I noticed that other people had opinions about my body ~ big-boned, chubby, fat, slow. This was so different than the feedback I got about “me” ~ smart, articulate, talented, kind ~ that the separation grew.
Fortunately, I had other things about myself and my life to love; academic performance, books, even a few friends. Plus, most of my family was, and continues to be what doctors call “obese,” which is average for working-class* Americans. If you work an soul-draining job, you don’t have energy to move after work; if you don’t have access and education about good nutritional, you eat the same crap as your ancestors (who were at worst literally enslaved & at best margarine-and-canned-everything-era housewives); plus, you don’t have the money or motivation to live what social media says is an “active” lifestyle…. It’s only natural that most of us have extra body fat.
More importantly, if you don’t feel like your body is a valuable part of what makes you you, you might not even care. I certainly didn’t. Even when I started trying to slim down before practicing yoga, even when I learned to love my body shape, my body still felt separate from “me.” Like my clothes, or a bicycle. Now, my body isn’t just some vehicle I’m schlepping around, it is my home, my lover, my friend… it’s an important and valuable part of who I am!
Most modern westerners don’t think about this, but the state of your physical body greatly effects your mental, emotional, and spiritual health (come back for Parts Two & Three of “Why Yoga,” later). Don’t believe me? I dare you to be hungry and kind at the same time. Go on, try it.
The Annamaya Kosha refers to the physical body as one of many sheaths (koshas) that make us “us.” Yoga helped me to make an intimate, lasting connection with my body, which really did open up the path for loving other, less visible parts of myself, too.
Even if changing your body shape and range of motion is your primary reason for considering a yoga practice, there are many deeper, less obvious physical benefits that yoga provides.
Let’s talk about stress, baby.
We’re all under stress, okay. Even children are stressed out, and (ideally) they don’t even watch the news! I’ll write more on the psychological causes of stress later. Right now I want to focus on the physical solutions to stress that yoga provides.
Taking short, rapid breaths is a symptom of stress; taking deep, slow breaths is the cure…. Even if you can’t control your stressors, you CAN control your breath. ~Ashley Jemini
But stress is a mental thing, right? Well, yes and no. In post-industrial societies like mine, stress is usually not caused by immediate life-or-death situations. We tend to worry about more distal, but equally life-threatening situations (i.e.: paying the bills on time so you’re not homeless or without internet access next month). However, our bodies’ automatic stress response is still wired to fight, flight, or freeze as if we’ve just discovered fresh tiger tracks… even when it’s just another sh!tty email from our sh!tty boss.
Is this why I want to reach through the computer screen and choke a b!tch?
It’s also why we run farther and faster when a rabid animal is chasing us verses playing a game of tag. When we’re done running for our lives, our stress response runs it’s course and our bodies return to equilibrium. Just the ole autonomic/sympathetic nervous system doing its job, trying to keep us alive with bursts of energy when and where we need it to escape perceived danger. Unfortunately, this natural ebb and flow of energy is often impeded or interrupted in the modern western world.
Most people in a near constant state of fight, flight, or freeze and it’s easy to see why: the stress of keeping a roof over your head, &/or feeding your children, &/or pleasing your parents &/or being popular, &/or performing well in school almost never go away. We call this chronic stress, and it’s definitely not just a mental issue.** The good news is, reducing your stress physically is much easier AND MUCH MUCH CHEAPER than psychotherapy. All you have to do is breathe.
BUT I’M BREATHING RIGHT NOW! I’M BREATHING ALL THE TIME AND I’M STILL STRESSED OUT ALL THE TIME YOU’RE FULL OF CRAP, ASHLEY!!
Pause. Exhale. Exhale slowly. Exhale completely. At first, you may feel like you’ll suffocate if you exhale all the way, but that’s because most of us only use the upper 1/2 to 1/3 of our lung capacity by default. Taking short, rapid breaths is a symptom of stress; taking deep, slow breaths is the cure. I was studying for my PsyD (Psychology Doctorate) before I heard someone say, “it is physically impossible to be excited and calm at the same time” (Kvaal, 2009). I’ve been helping people with anxiety disorders ever since. Even if you can’t control your stressors, you CAN control your breath.
They don’t always say this on Instagram, but breathing is really the most important part of any yoga practice. When to enter a posture, how long to hold the position, and when to change shape are all directed by the breath. In yoga, you watch and listen to the breath so that you know if you’re doing to much, too soon. When your breath is rapid or shallow, that’s your body trying to tell you “you’re stressing me out! Back off!” If you can recognize that cue on the mat, you’ll become an expert at seeing it in the real world, too. And you’ll know how to de-stress yourself, exhales first, whether it’s at your desk, or in school, or in the middle of a test or on a date… whenever you’re breathing, basically.
You could practice yoga postures without paying attention to your breath ~ I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and I didn’t like it ~ #yourbodyyourchoice. But… Seriously??? You’re already breathing, why not breathe well? Check out my note** below on cortisol** from the MAYO CLINIC** about just some** of the effects of chronic stress on your body. It’s the only body you’ve got, I’m just sayin!
Like chronic stress, chronic pain can be such a ubiquitous part of your life that you don’t even know it. As with chronic stress, you may think “this is just what it feels like to be 30, or 25, or 15 years old. Well, when I started to have chronic knee pain on my right side in my mid-twenties, I didn’t want it to continue or worsen, so I did yoga. With just a few poses a day for about two months, the muscles and ligaments around my knee joint became stronger, the pain completely disappeared, and I withstood a bike-vs-parked-car injury with no more than a bruise.
Unless you have a neurological disorder, chronic pain is likely caused by weak muscle &/or connective tissue, misaligned joints, or a combination of both. Even if the cause of your chronic pain is neurological, the meditative aspects of yoga can many people to cope with the pain. The physical practice of yoga allows us to move our bodies in a gentle, playful way, respecting whatever physical limitations we might have. Yoga holds space for laughing and crying through the pain, allowing all of us to love and accept our bodies the way they are, even if we get mad at them sometimes ^_^
Also, your body will definitely change shape
I didn’t say “you will definitely lose weight,” because yoga turns fat into muscle and muscle weighs more. Muscle also burns more calories, so your weight will decrease gradually and more permanently than it would with what doctors call “diet and exercise.” If you’re already pretty muscular, like I was, yoga will lengthen and strengthen what you already have.
The Annamaya Kosha, our physical form, is only the first of Five Sheaths of Self, according to the ancient Hindu scriptures that inform the lineages of yoga that I have studied and practiced. Next, we have the sheaths (or Koshas) of life force (Pranamaya), the mind (Manomaya), wisdom (Vijnyanamaya), and bliss (Anandamaya). Whether we intend to or not, a breath-based yoga practice will simultaneously improve the strength and flexibility of all parts of ourselves, even the parts we cannot see. More content coming about how yoga improves respiration, focus, and balance!
*I’m starting to think “working-class” is shorthand for “working at least full-time but not making enough to afford Girl Scouts or ballet or karate; or take international vacations, or save money for college or inter-generational wealth.” Parents of the people I went to high school with worked for their money, but they lived a very different life than we did. And their kids weren’t “obese.”
** You’ve heard of cortisol, right? It’s one of a few chemicals in the stress response that increases blood sugar and heart rate and stops digestion so that you can run away from that tiger whose tracks we saw earlier. But what if you’re just sitting at your desk reading that sh!tty email or balancing your checkbook or studying or arguing with your partner? What if you feel this way all the time, and there’s nothing to fight, flee, or hide from? According to the Mayo Clinic,
“[W]hen stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on. (¶) The long-term activation of the stress-response system ~ and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones ~ can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
That’s why it’s so important to learn healthy ways to cope with the stressors in your life.”
See?? Real doctors agree! The link goes into more detail on the effect of cortisol and ways to reduce stress, including yoga.