So it comes to no surprise to you that yoga is good at relieving stress, right? That yoga helps us to relax, unwind, and generally feel good, and that with this feeling good comes something much, much deeper - the chance to really discover ourselves and the world around us? We all know that, right? Well, yeah. Kind of.
More and more, yoga is becoming yet another stick to beat ourselves with. Another "challenge" to create an Instagram-worthy photo, to get the perfect "yoga body", and another chance to work ourselves into the ground, ironically creating more tension and stress in the body than before we started.
I've nothing against the stress relief that comes from a dynamic yoga practice. At the right time of month I am totally ready to challenge my body, challenge my mindset and yeah, maybe even get a bit sweaty (mainly because I'm Cornish and so the slightest bit of heat usually causes my face to light up like a traffic light and my body to start to sweat). But the reason that sweating and working is stress relieving is because, in yoga, we are focusing on our mind - noticing the frustration, competitiveness and ego - that jumps in whenever we lose our breath and our connection to the body. This focus helps us to know when to push further, and when to back off. This focus reminds us to take rest, to breathe and be present But are we really focusing our mind anymore on our yoga mat than when we're ordering a latte, checking Facebook, and chatting to our friend all at the same time?
We're all human, we are all subject to yoga envy - be it of someone's well-honed headstand or designer leggings - and I am certainly no exception. But in yoga we are meant to be working to transcending the envy and jealously and whatever else we experience on the mat, not using yoga as a chance to increase our sense of competition, of insecurity, and ultimately our separation.
The main goal of yoga is to achieve one-ness. This means we realise that everything's connected, we're all made of the same stuff, and that the universe is this one giant orb of, well, amazing intelligence, compassion and wisdom, and by building our connection to the universe, we can start to believe we are all capable of intelligence, compassion and wisdom.
Now I know that right not achieving a one-hand handstand might seem more possible (and probably more desirable) that any out there suggestion of one-ness. You might be thinking about your irritating neighbour and colleague, there is no way that dude is wise or intelligent, and as for compassion . . . You might just be thinking, well no, I kind of want to just do a rocking one-hand handstand . . . or even, Blimey, I don't need a lecture, I actually just want to relax...
Whatever your reasons are for coming to the mat, it doesn't really matter. But I urge to pause for a moment, and consider how you behave on your yoga mat. Are you working to overcome your ego, or are you taking that well-known path of striving and straining to get your body to do something, well, interesting looking?
We are probably one of the most stressed our generations ever. We run on adrenaline, we live in uncertain times - financially, environmentally, politically - and our world changes faster than our age-old biology is designed to keep up with. It doesn't surprise me that more people are turning to yoga, meditation and mindfulness as a way to cope with everyday life. But concerns me is that at a time when yoga could help us most, we are at risk of turning it into another reason we're stressed in the first place.
Next time you hit the mat, try paying attention to how you feel before you start. Be really truly honest - how does your body feel, how is the energy? What do you need from your practice today? I usually start my yoga classes asking students to tune into this, but you don't have to wait for your yoga teacher to tell you, just get into the habit of doing this at every practice. If you're really feeling brave, why not try restorative yoga? I teach 3 classes a week (see my timetable here) and my next restorative workshop focuses on managing anxiety through yoga.
Being still, using lots of props, and letting go might not sound like so much fun. But trust me, if you give yourself this gift you will find the rest of your life becomes a whole lot easier. So what do you say? Yoga for stress relief? You bet.