Originally published in The Enterprise Newspaper, Iroquois Falls, Ontario
By now, you’ve probably heard of yoga, and you might be a little curious about it. Maybe you’ve gone as far as to put on a class you found on YouTube and tried to follow along with the crazy demands the person on the screen was making. Or, maybe you’ve actually made your way to a public class or two. I’ve heard different versions of all these stories since I started teaching, but what people often tell me is that they don’t really understand what the fuss is about. To some westerners yoga seems like just another exercise craze, but in reality, it’s so much more than that.
Yoga originates from India, where it dates back over 5,000 years. In the East, yoga isn’t just a deeply rooted philosophy, it’s a way of life. Engaging with the breath, being present, practicing mindfulness, and moving the physical body are as much a part of everyday living as going up the line is in Northern Ontario. So, what happens when you take a 5,000 year old tradition and try to bring it half way around the world? Well, for some, it becomes an acquired taste. And for others it isn’t palatable at all. However, as the benefits of yoga continue to ripple through Western society, it’s important to take note of a common misconception about the practice. People often believe that yoga is only for the outrageously flexible and physically fit. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say that they want to try yoga but they have to “lose a bit of weight first.” That particular comment always makes me sad, because yoga is the perfect place to start.
Yoga is truly for anybody, and any BODY. It doesn’t matter if you can touch your toes, or stand on your hands, all that matters is that you show up on the mat, physically and mentally. Yoga is incredibly forgiving, and vastly welcoming. Any elitist bullshit you pick up on, is just that, bullshit. All yoga really asks is that you start from exactly where you are, and work your way up from there. Yoga doesn’t judge you for what you can’t do, because what you can is perfect. And yoga means it! It isn’t just blowing smoke up your ass.
Once people get over the idea that they need to be at a certain level to begin, it becomes clear that the practice attracts people for a myriad of reasons. Yoga helps with everything from anxiety, to depression, physical ailments to finding balance, flexibility, calm, and relaxation, just to name a few. However, the reasons that people come back to the practice, and commit to the practice, are even more complex and varied. Most come to yoga as a form of exercise in the beginning, as a way of making a change. But after even just a few short classes, people begin to notice positive changes happening in their body, mind and spirit. And so, they return to the mat, day after day, week after week, because they start to realize that yoga offers them an immediate way of tuning into the self, finding ways to disconnect from the exterior world and go within. Yoga allows practitioners, quite simply, some space for themselves. Something that is difficult to come by in a world that seems to be gaining speed on the daily. But thankfully, the yoga movement is gaining momentum right along with it.
In a 2016 study conducted by the Yoga Journal, the number of people practicing yoga was up to 36 million in the United States alone, up from 20 million in 2012. As studies and research into this ancient tradition continue to grow, so do the apparent benefits. According to a study by the University of Illinois, participants who were tested on their brain function after 20 minutes of yoga performed significantly better than the participants who were tested after 20 minutes of aerobic exercise.
After a single class, even brand new yogis can start to lower their stress levels, initiating a different stress response in the body by using the breath work and physical postures that anchor us, and provide practical tools to help us deal with everyday life. After a number of weeks, some studies revealed that practicing yoga lowered GABA levels in the brain, which are the chemical messengers that are linked to anxiety and depression. And after years of practicing, bone density in older patients not only stayed the same, but in some cases actually increased. According to the Harvard Health Publication, yoga also helped in stabilizing blood sugar levels, maintaining a healthy weight and lowering the risk of heart disease.
But despite all that, yoga isn’t some wonder drug. It’s not a pill you can pop. It’s hard work. However, it’s work that’s accessible to anyone with an open mind and a willingness to learn. Or as I like to put it; the hardest part is unrolling your mat. The rest is just stretching.