By Faye Martins
Why, are the physical concepts of yoga important to our students? Firstly, physical changes are what most of our students want. Many yoga teaching certification courses show us how to teach classes, but they can’t give you the experience of addressing each student’s needs. Granted there are a few styles that preach intolerance. The intolerant philosophy is the student must fit into the school’s mold, or get out. Yet, our students are all unique. One thing most of these schools have in common is the belief that yogic practices are all about postures (asanas).
Asana is often referred to as “moving meditation.” Yet, students often feel confused as to how the practice blends the body and the mind. Whether a student comes to yoga for a holistic spiritual practice or a gym-based exercise regimen, the physical aspects of practice yield great benefits for the body. The physical side of yoga is based on performing different poses which connect the body to its fullest potential. The posture sequence creates mindfulness when each new movement creates a sense of calm. As a result, we feel centered in the accomplishment of our practice.
Obsession Over Yoga Poses
Beginners often obsess over how to get into an asana, constantly worrying if they are “getting it right.” Others may feel embarrassed when they come to class with an extremely tight body. But by focusing on the deeper physical aspects of yoga, students can learn how to unite mental relaxation with reforming the body into more than just a stereotypical yogic pretzel. The next generation of practitioners is easily caught up in the “pack mentality.” When it comes to mastering difficult poses, this is the number one goal during practice. There is an awkward feeling that people who practice yoga have not accomplished the pinnacle pose. Since every practitioner has their own limits, there may be a sense of guilt that one’s ideal asana practice doesn’t meet the studio requirements. Sometimes, the ego has a negative foothold in the minds of practitioners.
Changes in Flexibility
Many students come to classes simply seeking a way to improve their flexibility. For these students, learning how to time their breaths with movement in an asana is key. In order to gain flexibility, a student should learn how to “breathe into” his/her body. Students should mentally focus on the part that is being stretched during the pose. Also, students should concentrate on how to breathe out tension and toxins that can form knots or tension in the body. Any pose can be connected with another pose within the same area of the body. These connections are called “transitions.” They are designed to keep a steady flow or circulation within a part of the body and transform stiffness into elasticity. Since transitions increase flexibility, they are often combined with specific breathing techniques that help to increase concentration and create the mind/body connection.
Changes in Muscle Tone
For these students, a gentle vinyasa flow will allow them to combine slow motions with the relaxation of muscles and joints which will help improve their flexibility and give them an added bonus of building muscle strength. This physical concept of yoga involves understanding how muscle tone changes over the course of a pose. Muscle tone is developed when the muscles are tensed or contracted. Light tension is used to lengthen muscles and increase flexibility. Developing full tension creates strength and generates heat, builds bone mass, and increases immunity. Extra tension can be created by breathing out while pushing parts of your body together. On the other hand, we can also push out against gravity. Lastly, we also can hold a fixed position to create relative muscular contractions.
Other students include yoga as part of their meditative or spiritual practice, seeing yoga training as the physical aspect of their meditation. These students will be responsive to the concept of body awareness that can confuse students who take yoga classes simply as a form of exercise. Our body is what holds our minds in place. If we are not mindful of our bodies, this can have a domino effect on other areas in our lives. In general, yoga helps us become more aware of ourselves and the space that we inhabit. That said, being able to recognize your thoughts and physical sensations is an important skill for meditation. In fact, we use the breath as its central device for stilling the mind amidst all of our daily obstacles.
Subtle Physical and Emotional Changes
An effective way to promote body awareness is to guide students to the direct link between their emotions and the state of their physical bodies. During meditation, a student may discover that she feels very angry with a coworker. She is puzzled when asked to discover where that anger and tension is reflected within her body. Eventually, she realizes that she holds tightness in her chest, which is causing shallow breathing. Additionally, another student discovers that her emotions are reflected in tight hips. She imagines herself sitting in her office chair while a coworker annoys her at work. Significantly, the student works to deepen her breathing or to stretch the hips. Eventually, the emotions that she holds in her body are also relieved.
Finding Inner Peace
The physical rewards of yoga reflect what students feel within their minds. As a result, there is gratification, whether students come to the mat for exercise, or to find inner calm. No matter what yoga means to each student, practice leads students toward a quality life. Sometimes, our students find peace and growth through their practice. In many yoga classes, students focus on finding peace in the present moment. Finding inner peace is a goal that most people work towards daily and often struggle with. With the help of a teacher, practicing yoga can help people to find this state. Of course, a number of techniques are practiced during sessions, which include mantra, meditation, pranayama, and more. Notably, the increasing benefits lead people to look for ways to keep yoga practice in their lives.
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