For over 5,000 years, people have been practising yoga as a means of heightening their consciousness. In the classical period, around the 2nd century A.D., the focus was on attaining a state of union between the mind and spirit through meditative practices, whilst the post-classical stage has seen systems which embrace the physical body as a means to enlightenment.
In recent years, this wonderful practice has become a solace for those suffering from the stresses and strains of modern life. Yoga has become mainstream and chances are you’ll have seen classes advertised near you, even if you haven’t yet attended one.
I first came to yoga at the age of twelve when I began regularly attending classes, having fallen in love with how it made me feel both physically and mentally. With the help of books and a DVD of yoga for teens, I cultivated a regular self-practice and learnt everything I could about the poses and philosophy of yoga over the course of my teenage years. The practice has been my lifeline through tricky years, mental challenges and Oxford life; and it has brought me the most strength, awareness, emotional intelligence, and alignment to my core values.
Through the physical practice of yoga – asana – you will gain physical strength and learn how to move with an integrated core. A focus on good posture decreases the risk of injury and discomfort as the correct distribution of weight means muscles are not overly loaded to hold the body in a sub-optimal position. In addition, yoga relieves tightness caused by other physical practices as it mobilises the fascia in ways that other movement systems do not because we move in a variety of ways on the mat, pulling the tissues in different directions to find more freedom in the body. You’ll be surprised to find just how much a flow class will increase the heart rate, and in time you’ll notice improvements in your balance and flexibility.
However, let me stop you before you start to complain about not even being able to touch your toes. Believe me when I say this: you don’t have to be flexible to do yoga. With practice, the tissues of the body will become more pliable and you’ll be able to move with more ease. But your tight hamstrings shouldn’t stop you from trying a class; it’s a good thing to have tight hamstrings! We don’t want them to be over-stretched and lengthened (but that’s for a whole other discussion). Yoga is therefore a wonderful compliment to other activities and can improve the performance of athletes because it works on all the elements needed for sport.
Yoga is so much more than just a physical practice, though. Through paying attention to our movement and habits, we gain a deeper sense of self-awareness and compassion; we feel stronger and more confident when we are connected to our core; when we take care of ourselves, we are better able to give our energy to others. It is about bringing more balance to our bodies and to our lives as the effort we put into the practice on the mat radiates out.
However, we do not need to strive to arrive at an end goal. Rather, yoga offers us the chance to connect to who we already are, just as we are. It is about removing judgement and simply being present to what we arrive with in the moment and accepting ourselves with compassion. Know that there is no right way to practise; tuning in to your mind, breath and movement is yoga. If you are new to yoga, a good place to start is with a class online aimed at beginners or take yourself along to a class if it’s offered in your college or local gym.
Molly Ross is a qualified yoga teacher. She created Breathing Space Yoga for Oxford students to cultivate resources for mental wellbeing. She teaches a physical therapy approach to yoga. Find out more at mollyrossyoga.com.