My relationship with yoga has very much been off and on during the past four years. Lately it’s been easier to set time aside for it. I’ve realised how much it has helped and continues to help me in everyday life and in my relationships with other people. For someone who easily experiences anxiety, yoga has been a great tool. This is because it doesn’t just focus on the body; it also works with the mind.
What is yoga then? A friend of mine once said: “Forget everything you think you know about yoga and just ask yourself do I want to be a little happier? Do I want a little more peace in my life? And if the answer is yes, just do it.” Yoga is much more than just poses and physical flexibility. In fact the physical aspect of yoga is only one of the many components of a yoga practice. The word yoga means ‘union’ – union of the mind and the body through breath. Yoga teachers will often talk about how you can transfer what you learn about yourself ‘on the yoga mat’ to your life ‘off the mat’. That might sound a bit cliché but it’s been true for me.
One such lesson, and an important one if you tend to experience a lot of anxiety, is learning to sit with discomfort. Yoga challenges us to, when we find ourselves in a pose that is causing the body or mind discomfort, to sit with that discomfort. For example we might be feeling a little bit of pain or thinking “I’m confused /am I doing this right/I don’t like this” and our instinct is to crave to get out of the pose. Yoga challenges us to sit with our sensations and feelings rather than instantly reacting and trying to escape them. In life, I have often been very quick to react to situations where I have experienced uncomfortable emotions. Often I have reacted to a situation rather than responded rationally to it, especially in regards to social interactions. Learning to sit with my discomfort has been hugely valuable in developing the capacity to not get overwhelmed by emotion and do or say something fuelled by fear, insecurity, annoyance or misplaced anger.
Yoga also encourages us to notice different tendencies in ourselves, to be curious and aware of our own thought patterns and behaviours. For example, if we are anxious and reactive people we can start noticing the pattern that is activated when we feel overwhelmed on the mat (‘I don’t know if I am doing this right’ – ‘What is everybody else doing’ – ‘I can’t do this’ – ‘I must look stupid’). Being able to be aware of and understand how we react within ourselves to stressful situations is an important step in learning to regulate our behaviour toward other people. Awareness is necessary to be able to, in due time, change ingrained patterns of negative self-talk and insecurity. The way we talk to ourselves is often reflected in how we interact with others.
Ultimately yoga is much more about peace of mind than bendiness and tricky poses. Through practising yoga I get a break from my own ‘internal dramas’ that I create on a daily basis. We can’t ever stop our thoughts and the thought machine that is the brain, but we can create longer moments of peace and we can start catching ourselves before we get sucked in, take a step back and not jump on our own obsessional or emotional rollercoasters. Many times we try to fix our thoughts with our thoughts and it’s not very successful – we need to feel grounded in something else, something that isn’t our thoughts. Yoga offers the breath as a tool – something upon which to focus our awareness on in order to feel anchored in ourselves. As we become more and more aware of our own internal self-talk, our own internal dramas, we can easier distance ourselves both from those internal dramas and also external dramas. We get better at communicating with ourselves, and also with others. And over time we become more confident in our ability to respond with reason rather than react with emotion.