Living Yoga Off The Mat
Living Yoga Off the Mat
By Sam Jacobs
Think back to why you first took a yoga class. To rehabilitate an injury, perhaps, or as way to counter stress? Because you needed some exercise? Because it just sounded fun? What was your “aha!” moment in which you realized there was change that lasted long after the practice was over? What are the transformations that keep you coming back to the mat? In India and other Eastern countries, the physical and mental benefits of yoga have been lauded for centuries; yoga is understood primarily as a spiritual practice that integrates the totality of human experiences through concentration. In the United States, unmistakably Western versions of yoga become more popular with every passing day. Here, the physical benefits of yoga are marketed and exalted over the subtler and more difficult to measure internal transformations. Nonetheless, the benefits of mindfulness practices are becoming more widely understood thanks in large part to an increasing number of scientific studies that offer data to back up what dedicated practitioners already know: yoga changes us. Modern technology’s ability to identify differences in the chemistry of the body before and after yoga – in cortisol levels, alpha wave activity in the brain, neural hemispheric activation, or the presence of the neurotransmitter GABA, for example – has provided near irrefutable evidence that mental and neurological benefits of yoga carry forward into our lives off the mat. Yoga might be tapped to increase generally a person’s quality of life, sense of calm, and serenity. With focused dedication and direction of attention and energy, however, a regular yoga practice may translate to growth in specific areas of our professional, personal, and creative lives.
Yoga as Muse
Yoga not only teaches us to problem solve more creatively but the ways in which pranayama (breath) and asana (posture) manifest change in the body’s chemistry may facilitate greater artistic depth. Certain portions of the brain thought to be active in the creative process have also been shown to be stimulated during a physical yoga practice. Furthermore, the speed of brainwaves during which artists are lost in creation or athletes are in their so-called zones typically occur when the brain is operating at alpha wave frequency. When we are stressed, absorbing new information, and processing everyday life challenges, brain waves oscillate at the beta frequency, a fast-moving rate that reflects the brain’s multi-tasking. When the brain slows to alpha wave frequency (about half the speed of beta waves), the pattern is indicative of a relaxed but fully present state mental. Advanced yogis who participated in one study were able to take their brain from a typical beta pattern to alpha waves in a matter of a few minutes. The mental discipline that is developed through a regular yoga practice, therefore, may allow us to more readily drop ourselves into a state of singular focus required for artistic endeavors like writing, painting, or composing music. Persevering on the mat and the sense of accomplishment that follows primes us to work through difficulties such as writer’s block or lack of inspiration as we come to creative work off the mat.
Yoga as Peacemaker
Yoga demands equanimity. To persevere through a class, there is usually one moment when we attempt a pose we find unbearable and are asked to hold it longer than we want, or realize that we do not have the strength or flexibility to maneuver our bodies in the fullest expression of a posture that the yogi next to us makes look effortless, or we hear words from a teacher that annoy rather than resonate, and we carry on to the end anyway. It is a practice of learning to let things come and learning to let things go. It involves dialogue among the body, the breath, the mind, and the class environment (or if self-practicing, whatever potential distractions of the private space), and most practices one of these elements does not behave as we would hope. The challenges inherent in stilling the mind on the mat are the same challenges that arise managing harmonious relationships off the mat. The people in our lives – family, work colleagues, lovers, friends – can at moments appear as strangers to us, behaving in ways we would rather avoid and do not see how we could possibly change. The practice of yoga, however, trains the body and the mind in measured persistence; in staying when things get tough and breaking difficulties into component parts until solutions appear. Yoga also trains us to have humility and acceptance for our own minds and bodies. When we harness these attributes, the challenges in managing our relationships with others can be played out in the familiar patterns of a yoga practice in which we find stillness and ultimately, peace.
Yoga as Liberator
As the yoga progresses, we find ourselves doing things we thought would never be possible from sticking a handstand to sitting still and breathing consciously for ten minutes. We see the transformations in our bodies and minds with marvel and wonder. We set goals and meet them. We become the change we wish to see. The mat is a safe place to experiment, and the small successes there can help us give ourselves permission to take more risks off the mat. Whereas in yoga, the consequences of our failures are mediated (ideally) by the safety and encouragement of the environment in which we practice, the more we make a habit of taking risks and accepting failure and success, the more we are able to meet challenges in less hospitable situations when professional advancement or matters of the heart are at stake. The yoga practice demands evolution, if not because we have a fantastic teacher who sees our potential and helps foster growth, then because the practice itself is strong enough to allow us to see more potential in ourselves. When we get in a yoga rut, we find a different style, or try a new variation of a familiar posture, or look to take meditation longer and deeper and are rewarded with new challenges, successes, and failures. The clarity and confidence that comes with seeing ones’ self as a creature worth taking risks for frees us from the limits and expectations that the mind can impose.
Patience with the Seeds of Change
This is not to say that yoga is the ultimate solution to creative blocks, that yoga inherently makes us more empathetic and able to take the high road when navigating relationships, or that we will ultimately be stronger and feel more empowered to face every challenge life tosses at us because of yoga. There are practices that don’t feel like anything other than going through the motions. There are times off the mat when no matter how far we feel like the yoga has come, we still disappoint ourselves. Change is a long time coming. It ebbs, flows, and refuses to follow a linear progression of advancement. We watch. We breathe. We keep trying. Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves why we come to the mat in the first place and honor those first seeds of inspiration – the muse, the peacemaker, the liberator, the whatever-it- is for-you – that continue to guide us forward as we change.