The right approach to yoga begins by understanding who we are. We are complex beings comprised of physical, mental, emotional and energy bodies. Just taking care of one aspect of us, our physical or mental bodies, may cause an imbalance and goes against the holistic approach of yogic science. Therefore, to practise yoga means to take care of the body, mind and emotions as an integral whole. If your practice is only asana, then it is not complete. Some people may obtain a social media worthy physical appearance through asana practices but could still suffer from anxiety, stress and other mental and emotional issues. Neither is only meditating or mantra chanting enough. The body’s health must be maintained. A good state of health is a balance of the body, mind and emotions and only then can a person function optimally and excel in daily life. Physical practices must be followed by breathing, relaxation and meditation practices. Doing challenging postures beyond one’s physical capability does more harm than good. Basic, simple and effective asana practice in conjunction with other aspects of yoga practices is what makes it sustainable and beneficial.
The correct approach to yoga practices will promote conserving energy, not depleting energy. This is completely different to exercise where energy is exerted, leaving you feeling tired and needing replenishment. On the other hand, yoga practices done correctly make you feel physically, mentally and emotionally recharged and energetic. This is because practices promote the secretion of our four natural feelgood hormones, boosting our moods and our immune system.
Adding karma yoga principles of full attention and awareness to yoga practices while having no expectation of the outcome steers the practitioner to stay focused in the present moment. Karma yoga is one of the four classical schools of yoga focusing on the path of action. It gives students of all levels the right attitude towards practices and brings their focus on experiencing the practice rather than on the results thus fostering alertness and the ability to observe. The benefits of being in the present moment are multiple. It relaxes the body, quietens the mind from self destructive judgement and conserves energy. Only with a relaxed state of body and mind can we heal and rejuvenate. With the focus on the practice itself, students can connect with the teacher’s instruction and build patience to commit to their daily practice and let go of unrealistic expectations. Focus must be on the present moment because the benefits of yoga will not come over night. Results can only be experienced through regularity and discipline.
The Bhagavad Gita says (2:47):
Karmanyevaadhikaaraste maa phaleshu kadaachana;
Maa karmaphalahetur bhoor maa te sango’stwakarmani.
Thy right is to work only, but never with its fruits; let not the fruits of actions be thy motive, nor let thy attachment be to inaction.
Our focus should be on action, not the result. If we focus on the result then we cannot be in the present moment and it is difficult to give our 100 percent effort in the action. We can miss the experiential knowledge and understanding. Fruits will come, but our motive should be action not the fruits and attachment should not be to inaction.
The principles of bhakti yoga of devotion must also be incorporated in our approach to yoga practices. Along with karma yoga, bhakti yoga is another one of the four classical schools of yoga focusing on the devotion to the yogic path. The importance of finding a Guru or a yoga tradition which is right for you is very important. Making hasty decisions based on superficial observations may cause more harm than good. However, once you are convinced of your Guru after having made your resolve to commit in a calm state of mind, follow the practices wholeheartedly with discipline. Have faith in the tradition of your choice because going to one Guru after another will only slow you down from experiencing the benefits of yoga and leave you feeling frustrated.
Feeling good depends on our mental and emotional states. Over challenging and fighting with our bodies will definitely not make us feel good. Because our bodies and minds are not separate entities, whatever we do to our bodies directly affects and sends messages to our brains and thus affects how we feel. Our approach, attitude and awareness are important and influence the secretion of happy and healing hormones.
Dopamine is a hormone and a type of neurotransmitter that the body produces to use in the nervous system. Levels of dopamine increase when we complete any self care activity or experience small wins and successes in our daily lives. That is why it is commonly known as a ‘reward chemical’. The positivity and motivation we feel after practising yoga correctly is partly thanks to the increased dopamine level in our system. Over challenging ourselves with difficult postures and exerting ourselves unnecessarily will not increase dopamine levels but leave us frustrated and fatigued. This highlights again the effectiveness of basic integrative yoga to keep practitioners of all levels happy every day.
Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland. Also known as the love hormone. Yoga practices enhance oxytocin levels in the bloodstream, helping us to be more loving towards others and ourselves. In our age of social media, judgement on physical appearance is a source of toxic self dissatisfaction. Increased oxytocin levels enhance our ability to accept and love ourselves just as we are, in all shapes, sizes, abilities and conditions, giving us more self confidence, as well as compassion for others. Once we learn to love our bodies, we will not do anything that is not good for us. It will become second nature for us to make healthy choices in our diet, lifestyle habits and to continue with yoga practices.
Endorphins are hormones commonly known as the body’s natural painkiller which are released by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland in response to pain or stress. Secretion of endorphins are enhanced in a relaxed state of body and mind; that is why we feel less pain when engaging in activities we enjoy. Those who like cycling or hiking would not mind the extra distance and can tolerate some physical exertion much better than those who hate doing it. It is the same with yoga practice. When basic yoga is practised with a relaxed attitude and a joyful heart, endorphins are secreted and the practice becomes more pleasurable. However, if the practices are too difficult and not balanced, you end up with physical pain, exhaustion and lethargy.
Tunnel vision effort to achieve challenging postures is counter productive. It is much more effective to regularly practice accessible and simple asana to gain the benefits of yoga. Many students, as well as teachers, misunderstand rigid and serious minded effort as virtuous. In reality, it tenses the body, makes it prone to injuries and causes mental frustration and anger. Yoga should be practised with a relaxed attitude with a smile. The practitioner should enjoy the process as if going on a happy stroll with a light heart. It is not meant to be a fight with the body to achieve a posture or a mental struggle to sit still during meditation. Of course, practices should not be done in a casual manner, but they definitely should not be forced or cause unnecessary pain. The saying, ‘No pain, no gain’ does not apply to yoga. It was not meant for physical pain. It is rather the contrary, “No pain, more gain’. In this context, pain refers to gradual, consistent and regular sadhana, dedicated practice, with patience.
Serotonin is a hormone known as the natural mood booster produced in the centre of the brain stem. It is released when we engage in pleasurable activities such as swimming, walking in nature, cycling and other physical activities done in a relaxed state of mind. Basic integrative yoga practised regularly enhances the secretion of serotonin and promotes a balanced and positive outlook on life. Pushing yourself to do extreme yoga will not increase the mood booster effect. In fact, over challenging yourself makes you feel restless, competitive and could trigger the ego to be arrogant. Addiction to achievement can develop and thus you are caught in the vicious rat race of chasing for more. In yoga, less is more. Correct and moderate daily practices are more effective in giving you a positive outlook on life.
Having the right approach in practising yoga will ultimately make you experience the benefits of yoga which is overall well being. You will feel good and that would be the motivation to continue the practices. It is as simple as that. Take the time to check your approach and attitude to your practices. Is it incorporating all aspects of yoga? Are the practices giving you energy or depleting your energy? Do the practices leave you feeling frustrated or content? If you are treating yoga as an exercise routine, then some physical fitness will be the only thing you gain from it.
Some teachers may tell students that they should be feeling inner peace and calm at the end of a tough asana session. Covering only one aspect of yoga will not yield the peace. You cannot expect to grow apples if you plant mango seeds. Over exertion in asana will leave most people feeling tired, frustrated or wondering why they did not feel the peace the teacher was talking about. Inner peace and happiness cannot be found outside. Trending yoga fads, yoga props, cool yoga wears and yoga pose selfies can only give you a temporary thrill that quickly fades.
Happiness and feeling well must be found within ourselves and the correct approach to yoga will lead you on that path. With a positive attitude and awareness, yoga will lead you to experience the present moment. No guru or teacher can give you the happiness and health that you are seeking. Benefits of yoga can only be gained as an individual effort to empower yourself.