Yoga has never been about stretching for me.
I’m not sure what first attracted me to the practice. I think the teacher was cute and friendly and I felt a slight change in energy after class that made my step a little lighter and my body more magnetic. As I began to practice in a more sincere way, that energy I felt leaving the classroom became addicting. It was the most incredible feeling. Post-yoga Courtney was on a high, gliding instead of walking, smiling instead of thinking.
It wasn’t until I spent a month training to be a yoga instructor- with no intention to teach- that I realized a few fundamental things yoga brought into my life. It was such a transformative experience and has changed the way I look at both life and the human body.
I think most of us can agree that the mind and the body are intimately connected. The brain and body influence each other and express health through each other’s communication methods. When your body aches, you become irritable or stressed. When you’re stressed, your body becomes tense, breaths shallower, and contracts.
But how far does this intimate connection go? I think much farther than Western medicine permits us to speak about with confidence.
In yoga, we believe that our body stores emotions. You will often hear that your hips hold deep-seated feelings, and when you sit in a long pigeon pose, you might hear a soft whimper across the classroom of someone releasing what’s been pent up inside.
In Taoism, there are five major organs governed by Qi or energy. Just like the West associates love and happiness with the heart, Taoists go on to say that the liver is the storehouse of anger, the spleen is affected by imbalance and overthinking, the lungs are affected by grief and the kidneys by fear.
It’s complex to explain because, in Chinese medicine, these organs work as a system like the planets in the universe. They also associate this system with the various elements that make up the energy of this Earth. You can quickly see how everything becomes interconnected, whereas Western medicine would have you study the pieces and often not the whole.
Why is this important?
Seeing the body and mind as a whole will help you heal.
First, we are better able to understand how scattered energy leaves us feeling tired, ineffective and restless. In yoga, we often use a “
This is also a metaphor for life. If we are honest with ourselves, we would all agree that finding perfect balance in life is very challenging (if not impossible) and takes a great deal of effort and focus. The more we scatter our thoughts, intentions and energies, we lose our ability to maintain balance and control over our lives. Imagine trying to text, drive and talk to your friend. It’s probably not a good idea when you compare it to someone solely concentrated on the task at hand.
I often have trouble with this. As a Gemini, I have a very fast mind that goes everywhere- which means nowhere really fast. Yoga has allowed me to take my anxious thoughts and put them in a box. The moment a pose has me sweating and breathing intently, my troubles fall away and all that’s left is the present moment.
This focus, this ability to be present, is one of the greatest gifts anyone can have in their life. It allows everything you touch to flourish with greater intensity, passion, and effectiveness. You feel more enjoyment, prosperity, and connectedness.
Yoga has also taught me a great deal about pain.
I will never forget the lesson the teacher taught me. I was sitting in a hip opener, feeling like I wanted to die from discomfort. Without knowing it, I was holding my breath, tensing my body and thinking about how and when I was going to escape from this pain. I never wanted to do hip openers because I knew I would always be met with this same discomfort that seemed to hurt more than it helped.
Then one day, my teacher began to talk to us about pain in a way that also seemed to be a metaphor for life. She told us that the poses we least wanted to do, the poses that were met with the most resistance, were the ones we needed. Another yogi joked that those who don’t have 10 minutes to meditate
I didn’t understand it at first. Why would I move towards the pain? Who wants that?
As I brought myself into the hip opener again, I was told to breathe. I unnaturally and purposefully continued to breathe deeply. After a minute, the pain became unbearable and I began to shift and wiggle, ready to exit the pose quickly. My teacher had no intention of letting us out of the pose. I felt heat grow inside me, anxiety and even anger. I was in pain and I wanted out! My body was not supposed to contort in that way. I was sure it was hurting me.
But then something magical happened.
She told us to breathe deeply into the places that hurt and begin to relax deeper into the pose. We sat there for 2 minutes, then 5, and I began to feel my body release. With each deep breath, I let go of my body’s defensive contracting and the immediate, knee-jerk reaction I had to escape the pain. I still felt it, but I let go of the anxiety. I let myself relax. Pain didn’t have to mean suffering. It just meant pain was there in the body, but why also put it in the mind?
As I practiced this more and more, facing the devilish hip openers in my personal practice, I began to see how powerful it was to sit with the pain and let it go. To not let the pain dictate your life, your thoughts, your decisions. But to move through it.
The only way in life is through the pain.
Now, I would like to say that I am fearless and take every opportunity to face my pain. I don’t know that I do. But I challenge myself and reflect deeply on whether or not I am moving through the pain or taking action to get out of it and avoid it.
If you ever have trouble, come back to the breath.
A month ago, I was hyperventilating and crying after a hard conversation with Antoine. We were in the car and he touched my arm and told me to breath deeply, mimicking how I should follow. I resisted. I didn’t want to find calmness. I was not calm.
But I fought the urge to hold onto the suffering. I took a few deep breaths. The difference was incredible. Those breaths changed my energy in an instant and I was suddenly calm and listening.
The breath is really understated in Western culture. In yoga, it is known as “Prana” or life force. When you breathe, you take in energy from outside to nourish the channels of energy in our body, also known as Nadis. Imagine a chargeable battery that has died. This would be our body and with each breathe, we are plugged back into the charger for energy and vitality.
It might seem unbelievable, but your life could change by
Deep breathing is healing and a giver of life.
If you find pain, resistance, suffering or adversity, find your breath. Count as you breath, making the inhale and exhale equal in length. You’ll find it grounds you in the moment and transforms you on a cellular level as well.