I dabbled with yoga a lot before I fully took the plunge. I’d tried classes at gyms, community halls and studios before I committed to a regular practice. I’m talking maybe 10-12 years of the odd stretch with others, occasionally binging on a week or two of classes with some special offer, when suddenly a few years back I knew I had to go to at least a weekly class.
What caused the shift? For me, it was a teary moment in child’s pose.
I had moved to a new area and was relief teaching at a new school. I’d started going to a yoga class most Tuesday evenings to meet people and one day I found myself in child’s pose and, quite unexpectedly, crying silent tears. It had been a rough day on year 5 with a kid screaming in my face that he was going to ‘f***ing kill me’. Apparently, I’d got on with my day without a fuss and was ready to process the event now – in a public yoga class.
This was the moment I realised how important yoga could be for teachers.
What is yoga really?
Oooh. I’ve opened a can of worms here! Traditionally, yoga has incorporated postures (asana), chanting (mantra), breathing techniques (pranayama) and philosophical inquiry all in the aid of meditation. It’s about connecting with your body, centring your mind and creating some space within to reconnect with the best version of yourself. And I don’t necessarily mean physically. I mean, the you who is confident, happy and flexible in life - even if you're not flexible on the mat!
Do I have to ‘Om’ and be spiritual?
No, of course not! Nothing is spiritual unless you make it so. If you want yoga to be stretching – great! If you want to go deeper into the philosophical side – go nuts! If your teacher chants ‘Om’ and you don’t feel comfortable, let it pass. If you connect with the rest of the style of teaching, stick with it and ignore the ‘Om’. Or explore different classes, styles and teachers until you find one that’s right for you. If you do like an ‘Om’ though, join in boldly!
Don't I have to learn to handstand?
Absolutely not! Yoga has entered the mainstream in a whole new way thanks to social media. It’s hard to scroll through Instagram without seeing someone with chiselled, tanned abs who is #blessed in their handstand. Remember, you’re creating space to find the best version of your whole self. Building up your practice can certainly feel satisfying as you stretch a little further, hold a little longer and reach a little farther. For most of us, that means being able to touch our toes or holding downward facing dog/mountain for a few more breaths.
So, don't be put off by others doing complex postures. Yoga is not about creating a perfect posture with your body. And, just like reading or maths, a good teacher will meet you where you're at. Yoga is for every body. To quote a teacher of mine, "If you have a body and you can breathe, you can do yoga." Again, if you feel like your needs aren't being met, speak to your teacher or try a different style or class.
Do I have to wear fancy Lycra?
When I was a kid, I equated yoga to
baggy, flowing pants. These days I relate it to boldly patterned Lycra. That probably sums up the Western yogic shift in the last 30 years. Despite what some blogs, social media posts or even studios may have you think – yoga is not about getting a six-pack and a booty to be shown off in brand-name Lycra. Sure, yoga can help your physical health and may give you the confidence to wear tight leggings, but that’s certainly not a necessity. Wear something you’re comfortable in and can move in.
A mega shift came in my own practice when I stopped looking around at what other people were doing and wearing and what they might be thinking of me, and just got on with it, focusing my attention on what I was doing on my mat and nowhere else. Of course, I still sometimes look around and feel inadequate for reason XYZ but part of the practice of yoga is noticing one’s thoughts. When I catch myself judging myself or comparing with others, I do my best to drag my attention back to my breath and my own practice.
How can yoga benefit teachers?
1. Stretching helps relieve inflammation
Inflammation is the buzz word in medical science right now. There’s so much research coming out that indicates how inflammation within the body impacts health and how stress can cause inflammation. What's one way we can reduce inflammation? By stretching.
Recent research, published in the Journal of Cellular Physiology, explains how experiments done on rats indicated that stretching for ten minutes twice a day reduced inflammation and pain. Now, of course, this evidence is for rats (and not very yogic in that sense) but I challenge you to try it for yourself and see how you feel!
Harvard Medical School also confirms the importance of stretching:
"It's not enough to build muscle and achieve aerobic fitness. You need to think about flexibility, too… Stretching keeps the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy, and we need that flexibility to maintain a range of motion in the joints. Without it, the muscles shorten and become tight. Then, when you call on the muscles for activity, they are weak and unable to extend all the way. That puts you at risk for joint pain, strains, and muscle damage.”
2. Reduced stress
In my experience, yoga gives some time and space for myself. It can allow for quiet reflection and a stepping away from the daily humdrum so as to tune into that better version of myself. It can give me time to process emotions (hence the teary moment in child’s pose!). And I can take a break from planning or worrying and focus my attention into the present moment - what I'm doing on the mat. I can be physically active and also rest (bring on the final relaxation!) Does this all happen every single time? No. But the more frequently I practice, the easier it is to slip into a contented state.
There’s been some interesting research into using yoga with returned servicemen who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One trial concluded that “yoga was shown to be effective in reducing both state and trait anxiety in deployed military personnel". So, it affected not only the situational feelings of stress (state anxiety) but also the level of stress felt by individuals (trait anxiety). For teachers, that could potentially mean the stressful feelings of a tough day (e.g. being threatened by a 10-year-old) as well as the anxiety you might have if you are a natural worrier. Which probably explains how yoga affects…
3. Positive neurological change
If stretching reduces inflammation and yoga has been shown to reduce stress, then it must be affecting us neurologically, right? Right.
I’ve written before about how meditation can aid us to manage the mind. And remember, meditation is a key element in yoga and the rest of it (the postures, mantra and breathing techniques), a really great way to prepare for meditation.
In regular life, our brains are
likely to be in a beta wave state. We are busy and active, and so are our brain waves. One study showed that there was a decrease in cortisol (commonly referred to as “the stress hormone”) during yoga practice as the brain was able to slip more easily into an alpha wave state. Alpha waves are longer and slower and we produce them when we’re in a calm state. There is some research which links beta waves to depression and anxiety so taking your brain to the alpha state for a while, perhaps through yoga or meditation, is clearly beneficial.
There are plenty more reasons why yoga may be useful for teachers like boosting immunity, aiding digestion, improving spinal flexibility and it potentially being a cardiovascular activity. And the good news is that the research shows that even one 90-minute class can help to reduce stress! Of course, a regular yoga practice is likely to be even more beneficial to the body and mind.
Fast forward several years from that teary moment on the mat and I’m now a qualified yoga instructor. I can touch my toes but am definitely a long way from handstands! Yoga certainly doesn’t have to be done in fancy brand-name Lycra, and even a short session done at home (possibly in comfortable pyjamas) can help to shift the body and mind into a more relaxed state. There are plenty of excuses not to do yoga, but there are some very big reasons to at least give it a go. You just have to do it.
The good news is that there are a bunch of sessions waiting for you right now! I teach a short session every Tuesday morning at 6:15 (AEDT) via Facebook live. It’s the perfect way to start a school day. Though you could also jump on the Samadhi in Schools' Facebook any ol’ time and do one - especially if you'd like to have a teary moment in child's pose at home.
So, how does yoga really work? I recommend reading this article by wellness coach, author (and luckily for me, friend) Jordan Travers for even more info about the science of yoga.
Are you a regular yogi? Are you having trouble getting into it? Have you had a teary moment in child's pose too?
Share your ideas in the comments box below.
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Berrueta, L., Muskaj, I., Olenich, S., Butler, T., Badger, G. J., Colas, R. A., Langevin, H. M. (2015). Stretching Impacts Inflammation Resolution in Connective Tissue. Journal of Cellular Physiology, 231(7), 1621-1627. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26588184
Harvard Medical School. (2013). The importance of stretching. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-importance-of-stretching
Huang, F., Chien, D., & Chung, U. (2013). Effects of Hatha Yoga on Stress in Middle-Aged Women. Journal of Nursing Research, 21(1), 59-66. https://journals.lww.com/jnr-twna/Fulltext/2013/03000/Effects_of_Hatha_Yoga_on_Stress_in_Middle_Aged.9.aspx
Stoller, C. C., Greuel, J. H., Cimini, L. S., Fowler, M. S., & Koomar, J. A. (2011). Effects of Sensory-Enhanced Yoga on Symptoms of Combat Stress in Deployed Military Personnel. American Journal of Occupational Therapy,66(1), 59-68. https://ajot.aota.org/article.aspx?articleid=1851541
Travers, J. (2017). So, does yoga really work? Retrieved from http://jordantravers.com/yoga-really-work/