Last week a funny thing happened in a class I was teaching: one of my students was gushing with excitement about her husband finally agreeing to try yoga. He realized “it was time” because he bent down to pick something up and found he could no longer touch his toes. I was so happy for the both of them. Can you even think of a more titillating fantasy than the prospect of being a yoga couple, practicing with mats side-by-side, gazing upon one another with placid smiles as you hold hands in the final twist before shavasana?! (Yeah, we see you yoga couples, and we’re all jealous.) But her husband’s hamstring flexibility is not what was sending this woman into ecstatic smile frenzy as she spoke to me about her hubby joining us on the coming Saturday. What she was really pumped for was that she could now share with him that (as she half-jokingly put it) “yoga makes me not want to kill people.”
The class roared with laughter as they nodded their heads in agreement.
But aside from being funny, its also true. If you practice regularly, you don’t need validation from the stacks of psychological research supporting the fact that, “yoga really helps change people at every level.” We yogis know from experience that yoga makes us kinder, more compassionate and possibly just more tolerable people.
Actually Snoopy, that’s not the case. The ancient yogic texts have much more to say about the nature of the human mind than they do about yoga postures (asanas). In fact, when I was in graduate school for Yoga Studies, we didn’t even learn ONE pose!
So what does yoga say about the nature of the mind?
A lot! But how about we dive into one teaching: First, visualize the thoughts like the current of a stream.
Indian philosophy would agree that whether the quality of our thoughts are positive or negative, if the current is too strong, it is going to be exhausting to try to stay afloat in that river. And it’s not going to be beneficial to your practice or ultimately, your quality of life.
That’s right. This even includes happy thoughts.
NOTE: of course we want to be happy! there’s a distinction here: being happy is different than a rapid “happy” to-do-list-like stream of thoughts.
happy feelings: smiles, laughter, lightness in the chest, ease, connection, generosity, compassion, love
happy THOUGHTS have words/content: I cant wait for x, y is so great I don’t know what I would do without y, I’ll be so glad once I have/ have done z.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with to-do lists, happy thoughts or even negative thoughts. We just don’t want the stream of thought to rage so fiercely that it gets to a point beyond our control (which often manifests as feeling exhausted, depleted, a lack of connection with others, the inability to focus and anxiety.) So yoga asks us to slow down the stream of thought,
— even look for places between the thoughts; place your awareness on the places between the breaths
…. these places can feel like nothingness
….or they can feel like pure potential,
…. like the container that the thoughts/breath exist within,
…. like a more panoramic perspective
….or like “cultivating the witness”
However, intellectually knowing this is not enough when the river is roaring – it may take something forceful (like a metaphorical dam) ease the rushing flow. We can’t think our way out of a monkey mind. This is why we practice.
I personally experienced that this week –
Life’s going really well. Projects coming together. Exciting things on the horizon. Happy thoughts, monkey mind, all the time… I habitually found myself in conversations with my mom where I had no idea what she was saying (sorry Mom!). My mind was racing. I recognized this as an issue but my attempts to slow down the thought stream were futile…. Until I stumbled upon a metaphorical dam in a place I definitely wasn’t looking: I went up in an airplane with my dad.
After a lot of hard work, my dad got his pilot’s license last week!! I can not begin to describe how awesome it was to be up there with him flying us over New Jersey.
Looking down on this hike spot instead of being in the trails, truly shifted something inside of me. I was able to experience that panoramic view (here, quite literally) of my situation which in turn makes my thoughts and to do lists, not the most important thing in the world. In fact, they’re quite small. This big physical shift created a shift in my awareness and since then, I have been enjoying quality conversations with my family, doing a lot more listening and experiencing less anxiousness about the projects and plans I have for the coming months.
It doesn’t have to be going up in an airplane. It can honestly be anything but one family of asanas that is famous for creating a similar effect is…. you guessed it: INVERSIONS.
Inversions literally turn our worlds upside down. They give us a change of perspective and can even help us to combat the fear that frequently comes with stepping into the unknown.
Benefits of an inversion practice:
improved circulation: the blood that pools in the feet & legs is encouraged to move upward toward the heart and brain (bonus: helps to prevent varicose veins)
improves lymphatic system function & boosts the immunity
stimulates internal organs & aids digestions
builds balance & keeps you alert
can reduce headaches and help to clear sinuses
depending on what type of inversion, they can promote relaxation or help to feel more energized
Loving the benefits but not so much the thought of a handstand? No worries. Check out these Common Yoga Inversions:
Adho Mukha Svanasana (downdog): Yes, by raising your head above your heart like you do in downdog, you start to receive all of the benefits of an inversion practice
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge): if you raise both legs straight up in the air this becomes a great supported inversion
Viparita Karani (legs up the wall) : one of my all time favorites!
Pincha mayurasana (Feathered Peacock Pose/ Forearm Stand)
Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulder Stand)
Halasana (Plow Pose)
Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)
Salamba Sirsasana (Supported headstand)
Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)