Here’s a question: who are these people who find yoga fun and relaxing? I see them on magazine covers or in ads smiling and laughing while they do their poses and pretend that yoga is just so damned lovely it makes them incontinent of joy and probably incontinent with joy as well. I’ve got to tell you that those images of yoga good times make me feel like I’ve really gotten it wrong, as if there was something they forgot to tell me to do, recite a mantra maybe or visualize puppies, when I showed up for class.
I mean really, what do fresh yoga models know of life? The reality for most people doing yoga is that it’s neither fun nor relaxing. Try yoga after enduring any of the traumas visited on our bodies by life’s cold calculus, of which the following is only a tiny sampling: ACL replacements and hamstring tears, herniated discs, sprained ankles, angry SI joints, dislocated elbows, whiplash, broken kneecaps, inflamed bursas or frozen shoulders. Then show me the smiles and laughter as you try to persuade your body to bend, twist or balance.
What I’m certain is happening is the weeping, agonized faces of these models are being photo-shopped into oblivion, replaced by a sort of Stepford Yogis look intended to convince the doubters that “despite your dilapidation, yoga will permeate your soul causing unrestrained giddiness and laughter”. The yoga ads remind me of the demented grinning you see in photos from North Korea, where Kim Jong Un is surrounded by uniformed flunkies whose only hope is that if they smile harder than the next guy their Supreme Leader won’t annihilate them with an anti-aircraft gun or a pack of starving dogs.
The message implicit in yoga ads is that yoga is a) fun b) relaxing and c) all about making you smile in the same idiotic and unselfconscious way of someone who just took Ecstasy. The point here, in case you were wondering, is that the message we send people about yoga is not just confusing, it’s way wrong, and reveals a fundamental flaw in how yoga is perceived, taught, and practiced. The reality is that yoga sucks, but the fact that it sucks is what makes it extraordinary, even revolutionizing, and it’s why yoga can bring about such startling, life altering changes to the body and mind.
Quite simply, yoga is so remarkably effective not because the postures are relaxing, but because they are stressful. Yoga postures don’t welcome us with a smile, hand us a beer, and say c’mon in; they confront us and elicit anxiety, discomfort, pain, frustration, and misery. The postures aren’t relaxing because they’re not meant to be relaxing; instead the postures provoke us by laying bare our limitations and by forcing us to make a choice about how to react to our suffering.
When confronted with this stress most of us begin a downward spiral, our minds deteriorating into a welter of self-defeating thoughts that begin even before we unroll our mat and the tattooed personality leading the class croons “om”. As we anticipate the unpleasantness of coaxing our recalcitrant bodies into positions otherwise banned by the Geneva Convention, the nervous system responds as if preparing the mind and body for battle. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), that branch of our autonomic nervous system that, among other things, prepares us for a harmful attack or threat to our body, shifts to overdrive and within milliseconds floods our system with stress hormones. The result of this deluge is hyper-alertness of the mind and body, also known as the fight or flight response, which is characterized mainly by a rapid increase in heart and respiration rate, short and shallow breathing, and heightened muscle tension, all of which takes us about as far from the desired effects of a yoga practice as we can get.
The problem isn’t that the body reacts to stress, but that it overreacts to an extreme. This is because the SNS has one broad, all or nothing response for any stressful scenario, from life threatening events to job loss to uncomfortable yoga postures, that people can encounter every day. While our rational perception of these situations allows us to see how they differ, the SNS lacks this ability to discriminate and give a measured, proportionate response. Our physiological responses come straight from our reptilian brain like a tsunami, overwhelming logic and drowning us in our own primal impulses.
Based on this gloomy outlook a reasonable question might be “why bother?” Why practice yoga if it just adds more stress to a system that for many is already overloaded? We bother because yoga, when practiced with breathing at its centre rather than postures, is a revelation. When the focus shifts from the need to “get” a posture to that of developing the breath the postures become an opportunity rather than a barrier, and yoga becomes a process rather than a destination.
For me yoga has always been difficult, sometimes unpleasant, but I do it because I have to, and because it’s challenging and the benefits are abundant. There are a lucky few among us whose bodies have no encumbrances, they’re open and supple and they enjoy admiring glances as they move in and out of extreme postures with grace and ease. Some of these ultra-limber folks reach that level because of natural ability, dedication to their practice, and an understanding of yoga’s restraints. The rest are clueless, their yoga informed by a misguided equation where preternatural flexibility = spectacular postures = yoga; what it really adds up to is instability and injury. Both the rules of yoga and the laws of biomechanics apply equally here: yoga is as much about contraction as it is about expansion, and as much about stability as it is mobility .
Yoga asks us to cultivate deep, slow, carefully regulated breathing, to connect to our body by attending to sensation, and to attend to the on-going release of our thoughts, no matter how persistent or negative, to maintain a quiet mind. I teach Ujjayi breathing because the nasal breath is substantially more challenging, requires more focus, and is more beneficial physiologically than mouth breathing. But whichever method we choose, controlled breathing calms us and re-directs our nervous system from fight or flight, helping to maintain equilibrium between sympathetic and parasympathetic modes. When we take a breath-centered approach to yoga we come to understand that despite what we’ve been led to believe the postures are not yoga, the postures are obstacles, no different than the obstacles we encounter throughout our lives. It’s here amidst the daily struggle that the true yoga, equanimity, a calmness or composure in the face of life’s calamities, is found.
Deep, conscious breathing is a remarkable act because it stabilizes us in three distinct and vital ways. First, proper breathing activates the diaphragm, the main muscle of respiration that also plays a key role in stabilizing our trunk. The diaphragm is one of four muscles in the trunk that comprise the “inner unit” or “core” (the others being the pubococcygeus, the multifidus, and the transverse abdominus). As we inhale the diaphragm contracts and descends, creating a lid on the core and acting in concert with the pubococcygeus (a pelvic floor muscle) to compress the viscera and stabilize the torso.
Second, deep abdominal breathing stabilizes the mind. In order to create a deep, conscious breath, the mind must be quiet and focused. This is why conscious breathing is at the center of most forms of meditation and somatic practices.
Third, deep abdominal breathing stabilizes the nervous system in general and the autonomic nervous system in particular, reducing sympathetic tone and helping to maintain balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. People are surprised to learn that much of the tightness they feel in their skeletal muscle is created by a jacked-up sympathetic nervous system. This excessive tissue tone or “hyper-tonicity” is a result of our sympathetic nervous system spending too much time switched “on”, with some of the same causes and effects described a few paragraphs back. What this means is that you can do all the yoga you want, but if you’re chronically stressed and your breathing is a mess your sympathetic tone will remain high and your muscles will continue to feel tight. Yoga is breathing.
The sense of empowerment we achieve from yoga comes in part from learning and consistently practicing authentic breathing. Breathing mastery, regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, asserts control of our mind; from this we realize we’re not at the mercy of our reactivity and the reflexive default of our nervous system. Those who understand the significance of breathing can skillfully apply the breath to hack their nervous system and control which of the two contrasting reactions, sympathetic or parasympathetic, will dominate. The ability to control the flow of neural information on what is essentially a two-way street should be nothing less than a revelation. By cultivating a deep, controlled breath as we face the challenges of the posture we’re able to maintain equanimity, keep ourselves in parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) mode, and maintain equilibrium in the autonomic nervous system.
Yoga’s primary purpose is and always has been to stabilize, calm, and control the mind and the nervous system. Combined with the unpleasantness of opening the body, carefully controlled breathing presents an opportunity for learning and growth as we struggle against the resistance offered by both the mind and body. As a welcome by-product, the postures build a strong, adamantine body. Part of yoga’s beauty is that it is perfectly self-contained: the body is both the source of our suffering as well as the instrument of our “salvation”. The cultivation of breathing creates a centered mind, and the continual release of our thoughts and the “listening” to bodily sensation allows us to ground ourselves in the body and keep the mind quiet and focused.
The obsession with postures in most yoga teaching testifies to the failure of teachers to recognize the vital, multi-dimensional role breathing plays, and to understand that breathing, not postures, is the true teacher of yoga. When the pursuit of postures becomes the reason we practice, the postures – and yoga – become little more than acquisitions in our consuming, status-driven world. Yoga is better than that.