Important Non-Physical Benefits I Learnt from Yoga

words by Kathleen Flemming

A few years ago when I first started to practice yoga, I was only interested in the physical benefits. I wanted to be more flexible, stronger and improve my core strength. Of course, I have seen improvements in all of these areas but what I have begun to realise is that yoga has taught me so much more. Yoga is a sanskrit word which literally means the union and has come to symbolise the union of mind, body and spirit. In the western world many of us go to yoga for the fantastic physical benefits and we forget about the ‘mind’ and ‘spirit’ elements to the practice. It is true that some classes are taught with emphasis on the physical but even in these classes we can learn a lot about ourselves and reap great mental and emotional benefits.

Over the last few years I have learnt many important non-physical lessons through my yoga practice. I wanted to share the most important ones to me as applying all of these to my daily life has helped me deal with many problems as well as giving me the resources to take on new challenges.

1. Breathe. We all breathe but most of us never focus on our breath. Good yoga teachers will always place emphasis on breathing. Focusing on our breath can tell us a lot about how we feel as well as helping us to feel better. For example, if your breathing rate increases it my be that you are anxious or stressed. If you become aware of this you can consciously try to slow your breath. By bringing attention to your breath you automatically slow your breathing, bring your heart rate down and calm your mind. It is likely that you actually stop feeling anxious or stressed. I always used to think of the yogic breath as a nonsense but when I opened my mind to it, my whole life changed. When I was working as a lawyer in London, life was busy and stressful and I found it easy to control my anxiety by using breathing techniques. Often on a packed tube, I would close my eyes and just focus on my breath. I would no longer feel stressed and would get off the tube feeling calm.

2. Silence. I used to hate silence. I think I was scared of it because I used to think it meant people felt awkward in my presence or that my life was dull. When I started doing yoga there would be many moments in the class where there was silence. At the end of every class we would lie down in silence. I didn’t like it. I wanted to do something or listen to something not just lie there. After a while I got more used to the quiet and my yoga teacher would encourage us to appreciate stillness and silence. How often in your day is there silence or stillness? There are phones ringing, computers humming and people talking. Obviously it is also important to tune into your surroundings but being comfortable with silence and stillness is also important. Sitting in silence and silencing your mind is a wonderful de-stressing experience. If we could all find a few moments each day to be quiet and still, we would be a lot less stressed.

3. Don’t Compare. We are all guilty of comparing ourselves to others. Is she thinner than me? Does everyone look nicer than me? Why can’t I do that like her? During my first yoga classes I would look on in envy at the yogis who could contort themselves into all sorts of amazing postures. I used get incredibly frustrated and cross with my body for not being able to do what they could do. I kept looking around, feeling self-conscious and wanting reassurance that I was at least better than some of the others. We all do this to some extent whether it be in a yoga class, at the gym, at work or at a party. Yoga helped me to stop comparing myself. In yoga we are taught to look inwards, look at ourselves without comparing ourselves to others. We are unique and we are all different. Certainly there are some incredibly gifted, beautiful people in the world but at some point in time there will always be someone fitter, stronger, more beautiful than you. Accepting what your body can do on the mat goes a long way in helping you to accept yourself.

4. Listen to Your Body. I used to push myself. I still do but a little less because I have learnt to listen to my body. Especially when we are young, we expect our bodies to carry us through all the crazy things we want to do. We work hard, play hard and train hard but we seldom stop and take note of how our body feels until we get injured. Most of us plough on with that workout when we know we are tired. Yoga has taught me to listen to my body and stop when I need to stop. Our bodies feel different everyday. Runners know that one day they can run forever and the next run their legs are heavy and they can’t run for more than 10 minutes. Yogis can stand in tree pose for 10 minutes and the next time they fall over after 10 seconds. A lot of us will force our bodies to carry on instead of listening to how we feel and asking why things are different this time. It may be that we need a break, we nedd to do something different or It could even be that your body wants a little more. The important thing is to be in touch with our bodies. If you can’t do something one day that you could do before, listen to what your body is telling you. Maybe you need a rest?

5. Patience. We live in a crazy world where we expect things to happen instantaneously. If something doesn’t happen as we want it to happen straight away, we are frustrated. Sometimes I watch people in queues in coffee shops or on a train platform. I can visibly see their heart rate rising. We expect things and we expect them to happen quickly. But this isn’t always how things work. Sometimes we have to be patient. Many yoga poses are challenging and require practice. Yoga taught me to be patient and that over time things will change. Some poses have taken me months even years to master and still I have so much more to learn. If you get frustrated and impatient, things never work.

6. Challenge Yourself. It is very easy to continue in the same job, keep the same gym routine etc. because it is comfortable. It is easy to avoid learning new things. Doing something different, something new, forces you out of your comfort zone. It is good to challenge your body and mind. We will never improve ourselves if we just continue as we are, plodding along in our comfort zone. Many of us are scared of new things and scared to challenge ourselves in the fear that we will look silly or fail. My yoga teachers encourage me to try things I never think I will be able to do. Initially I was reluctant to try difficult, new poses because I thought I would look a fool but after a while I realised that most of the class look like fools and those that don’t probably once did. We all have to start somewhere and challenging yourself in a yoga class is a good way to gain confidence before diving into other challenges in your life. Yoga teaches you to challenge yourself while forgetting about your pride. Just go for it.

If everyone did yoga and opened their mind to the mental benefits as well as the physical, we would all feel a lot better. Find a good teacher and begin to open your body and mind.