Saturday, November 9, 2013

What’s Behind the Yoga Class Afterglow?

A common response when someone takes their first or second yoga class is, “Why do I feel so good afterwards?” It can often feel different than after Zumba, 30-minutes on the elliptical, or other similar exercise, and new practitioners notice.

I’ve been thinking about this because when I get this question, I often respond reflexively, mumble something about the breath, and then think to myself, “Well, it’s more than just that.” But what is it exactly?

I brought this inquiry to my own yoga asana practice and uncovered three things that make it distinct—at least for me—from other kinds of physical activity. It's also a starting place for me to respond to why we can feel calmed and renewed after practicing yoga asana, the third limb of yoga.
1.       Breath and Movement

First, yes, there is the breath, which acts as a bridge to reconnect the mind and body. Taking note of the qualities of the breath, its location in the body, its length, sound, and overall feel, is often used to get centered at the start of a yoga class. It then becomes a point of reference, or reminder, to return to the breath throughout the practice.
More importantly for me, however, is synching breath with movement. While this is most prominent with sun salutations (surya namaskar) or even simple dynamic asanas such as cat/cow, it can also be felt while holding a pose and making subtle shifts and adjustments in concert with the breath.

This synchrony alone is unique in its ability to focus the mind, draw attention to the breath, and often extend the exhale—or at least bring the inhale and exhale into more balance. A balanced, lengthened breath can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or start to move in that direction, and initiate a sense of calm.
2.       Poses Contain Their Own Energy

In my own yoga practice, the perceptible movement of energy within the body during asana practice is what I enjoy most, and it plays a noticeable role in changing the way I feel.

Every yoga asana or pose contains its own particular energy, a “specific template” that has evolved over thousands of years for moving the life force through the body, according to Erich Schiffman. He describes the action of these lines of energy to “reconfigure your entire energy field,” and open blocked and tight areas in the body.

Unlocking the energy contained in a pose opens to the expanded space, power, and renewal that it offers. Each configuration has the potential to wake up one or more of the primary energy centers, or chakras, as well as the more subtle energy fields, the nadis. Finding our way in and out of these specific shapes helps to open stuck and stiff places in the body and experience that energy.

This is why I find it really helpful after a pose or a series of poses to take a pause and enjoy this new, open current of energy. It feels exhilarating, but also calm and steadying.

3.       Slowing Down the Mind

Finally, a balanced yoga practice helps to relax and counter agitation in the mind—a ratcheting down of the mind’s hub of activity.

When I first started practicing, I had no idea what I was doing and it took every bit of focus and attention I had to be in the practice. When I’m present for my practice now, it can still be that absorbing.

The laser-like focus required to be present, attend to the breath, and work with the body to create the particular shape of an asana all hone the mind into a quiet kind of stillness. There may even be a sense of flow or being in the “zone.”
Asana practice for me then becomes an ideal preparation to sit in meditation. The body has been strengthened, the spine lengthened, and the hips opened to be able to sit with more ease. Energy paths are cleared and the mind has moved toward stillness.

Coming home to the body in this way is what brings me back to yoga—returning to my deepest self, reconnecting with the present moment, and opening to being right where I am (well, trying to at least).

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