Why does yoga work?
What exactly does it do? As I sit down to write this brief article, I am compelled to mix my experience with the data and try to find some middle ground. Studies do not corroborate most of the health claims that yoga makes. Or maybe they are supported to a small degree. Yet, unlike most things, yoga does improve almost every body that it touches. It improves almost every mind that it touches. Why is that? What claims can be made? What reasonable conclusions can be reached about yoga?
Yoga is a long-lived activity. The fact that it has survived as a system of alignment and an ethical discipline for 2.5 millenia tells you that it works. Things that do not work do not stay around that long. So now, let’s change the conversation. It works… but what does it do? What can we say for sure about yoga practice?
Yoga aligns breath and movement. It aligns intention with action. It aligns strength with flexibility. It is a discipline of alignment.
Yoga stretches the body. The fascial layer which wraps tissues throughout the body is stretched through all the twists and lunges and deep bends. This stretching and holding of the pose while deepening and focusing the breath makes something happen. Next time, it is easier to get into that pose.
Yoga introduces suppleness to the body. As we age, we get hard in spots where we used to be soft. Yoga allows those hard spots to soften. One good question to ask is why we got hard in the first place. It holds some clues as to what is happening when we soften up again.
I looked up “suppleness” in the dictionary. It means “yielding, soft, bending without breaking”. This is all true about yoga. But one thing I appreciate the most about yoga is that it balances that yielding quality with strength.
As you do your one hundredth chatturunga dandasana, you find out you are stronger than you thought. Overly flexible people may find that they used to be able to bend more than they can now that they have been practicing yoga for a while. That is because strength and flexibility have an inverse relationship. As one increases, the other decreases. Yoga builds them both, so that the suppleness that is built in the body’s soft tissues is not weakness or flaccidity. It balances the strength as well, by keeping it from being a rigid, hard, outer body type of strength. Yoga’s strength comes from within.
Inner body becomes toned
Bodybuilders build a body that looks good. They can become extremely strong outwardly. But their bodies have major imbalances and weaknesses when they are tested. All that strength turns into weakness because they fatigue so quickly. This is a result of the way they build their strength. It is for show, a display of power. Yoga does not build the outer layer of muscle like bodybuilding does. You may not look very strong. But the strength comes from the inner layer of muscles. It is not forced. It endures. Deep power. As this inner strength becomes apparent, the outer appearance of strength is not as important. A remarkable thing happens.
People soften up
Once that core tone is established, the outer layers which were holding the rigid tone to create the appearance of strength can relax and be soft. This allows more levels of personality and consciousness to open up. As people become truly deeply strong and rooted, they are able to open up to more feminine qualities like creativity and they express their inner light more readily.
As the body is, so is the mind
When your body becomes strong and flexible, your mind and spirit follow. Things that used to really upset you no longer have the same impact. Your reflexes are better physically and also mentally and spiritually. Yoga helps you build up awareness of your own thoughts and feelings and slows down the reaction time to any event. In that slowed reaction time, you become able to make better choices. Do I want to react to that in anger or do I want to walk away? Do I want to pursue that friendship or do I want to explore a different friendship? Do I want to worry about that thing that I have no control over or do I want to let it go? There is great power in that awareness and that newfound ability to choose