Exercise is as much about our minds as it is about our bodies. The older we get, the more important that idea becomes. Being active and keeping in motion gets us out of our own heads and makes us feel like we’re part of the world around us. That mind-body connection thing that people talk about is for real. If you’re out taking a walk or riding your bike to the park (or even to work, for that matter), you’re staying physically involved in that outside world. But it’s still the mind that motivates you, that gets you going. You can’t get out of your own head unless that little voice inside of you lights the fire that gets you moving.
And one of the best ways to make that connection between your body and your mind is through practicing yoga. Yoga is all about discovering how your body and mind relate to each other, how the simplest movements and realignments can change the way you carry yourself—and can make you aware of how it is possible to move in a less stressful, more comfortable way. More than almost any other form of activity, yoga makes it very clear that you don’t need to grunt, or sweat, or compete with the people around you, to do something that’s very good for your body.
According to recent articles posted on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal websites, about four out of every five people experience low back pain at some point in their lives. Both posts go on to discuss how regular yoga classes can do as much to relieve low back pain as intense stretching can. To be clear, the study does not say that yoga does a better job at easing that pain, but it does do the job just as well—and in a way that can have a positive effect on your frame of mind and overall well being. The study that both articles cite says that there’s no evidence to support claims that yoga affects one’s mental state of being, but I think that many yoga practitioners would beg to differ on that topic.
If you want to get started practicing yoga, the process of finding a comfortable place to do so can be the opposite of relaxing. There’s a whole minefield of yoga terminology out there, with an amount of styles and approaches that can be really intimidating for someone who has never uttered an “om” or sat in the lotus position. In New York City, where I live, it seems as if there’s a yoga studio on every block, each one promoting a different method. At the gym I go to, there’s “Virgin Yoga” for the new practitioner and “Buff Yoga” for the people who are looking to use yoga as way to tone up.
That’s in addition to the more traditional practices of Vinyasa and Ashtanga—both of which take the movement of the breath as a central focus for a series of asanas, or positions, that are moved through. And then there’s Iyengar yoga, which often uses blocks and straps to help practitioners feel comfortable in potions that they wouldn’t feel comfortable in otherwise. There’s even a class called “Enlightened Yoga,” inspired by the new HBO series starring Laura Dern—a prospect I find more than a bit strange, given the overall aura of mental stability that seems to be that show’s home territory. But if it gets people started in a yoga practice, I guess that’s a good thing.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can also take Bikram yoga (www.bikramyoga.com), which is usually practiced in a hot (100-degree) room. There are classes specifically for runners, or for people with joint pain. Yoga also tends to foster a kind of egalitarian spirit, leading to a lot of places that charge nominal rates. One example here in New York is a place called Yoga for the People (www.yogatothepeople.com). They also have branches in Seattle, San Francisco and Berkeley, and charge just a suggested donation of $10 per session. Or if you’re really in the mood to get in touch with your body, there’s something called Hot Nude Yoga (www.hotnudeyoga.com), a concept that I think kind of speaks for itself.
If you’re just starting out, looking for a class that emphasizes a gentle approach and, even more importantly, welcomes beginners, should be your primary focus. Also, feeling comfortable with the teacher is exceptionally important. If the teacher is hard to follow, or isn’t sensitive to your needs, you won’t get very much out of the session. You should feel like you’re in a safe place when you practice yoga, so admit to yourself if you feel uncomfortable and move on.
And if you don’t want to take a class, there are many books, podcasts and DVDs out there that can help get you going. For me, it helps to have someone there guiding me through the positions and correcting me when I’m doing something wrong. As with any exercise, doing things the wrong way can be more harmful than not doing anything at all, and most of us are not the best judges of whether or not we’re doing things the way we’re supposed to.
One final thing: A major factor in yoga practice is being able to get out of the normal life patterns that stress you out. Because of that, I’d suggest that beginners set aside a little time for themselves before and after a yoga session. Walking right back into a stressful work situation after an hour of physical and mental meditation can eliminate almost any positive effect that the session may have had. Make sure you have a little time to assimilate the benefits you get out of the sessions. Getting your heart going and breaking a sweat are great, but slowing down is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Let yourself really feel the difference that yoga can make in how you feel about yourself and your surroundings. As they say at the end of many yoga classes, “namaste”—which is a way of recognizing that place where the mind and body meet, whether you call it the soul, a “divine spark,” or just a healthy, relaxed feeling.
Steve Barnes is a freelance writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in such publications as ARTnews and the Wall Street Journal.