“Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself.” —Bhagavad Gita
Most Americans think of yoga as a physical exercise that young people do to gain strength, flexibility, and maybe show off cute workout pants. Some may be aware of its benefits for managing stress and even improving mood and energy. All of these are parts of yoga, but they only touch on the surface of what it has to offer—to people of all ages and abilities.
The word “yoga” can be translated in many ways. Literally meaning “to yoke,” it is most often translated as “union”—of body, mind, spirit, and with the universe. My personal favorite definition is the above quote, which comes from a great spiritual text and clearly runs much deeper than the usual understanding of yoga as exercise.
I teach regular chair yoga classes to seniors. We sit in a circle, and I invite them to listen to their bodies as we go through the practice so they don’t hurt themselves. One of the most vital concepts of yoga is to practice to your own personal edge for that day—to find that balance between comfort and effort. In other words, to listen deeply to your needs (a new concept for many!) and then to push yourself out of your comfort zone, but not so much that you harm yourself.
We settle in to our chairs, close our eyes (if people care to), and we begin to observe our bodies, minds, and breathing—without judgment. We then deepen our breath, and finally set an intention (“Samkalpa”) for the class. Historically, yoga was taught by a master to an individual, so an intention was based on that person’s particular needs. In a larger class, I do my best to set an intention that is applicable for all, such as “acceptance of change,” gratitude, or perhaps to just bringing awareness to your energy as we move through the poses.
We then work our way through the body slowly, paying deep attention to each gentle movement. Everyone is doing something slightly different according to his or her strengths and limitations. In between, we may laugh or someone will share a story (especially when someone passes gas, which seems to happen a lot). We complete the class by practicing Shavasana, or “corpse pose,” which is simply deep relaxation with no effort. I ring the chime gently, and we awaken out of relaxation and take stock again of our bodies, minds, and breath so we can evaluate how we feel differently than when we started. I chant an “ohm” and most people choose to join in.
Along the way, I sometimes walk around the circle, gently touching shoulders or necks (if I have gotten the person’s permission to do so). Do you realize how rarely the elderly are touched or touch themselves with any tenderness?
The benefits of yoga are not only physical; they are emotional, spiritual, and communal. With practice we become clearer about what we can change, what we can let go of, and what we need to accept in ourselves (see above quote!). Every time we sit together and practice, we quiet our minds and meet each other at our best. The now-clichéd expression “Namaste” means “the best in me greets the best in you.”
How many places can you go where this attitude is cultivated and practiced?
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