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For Beginners:
The Benefits of Yoga Practice

There is an old story in the ancient literature of India about a student attempting in vain to describe the taste of a mango. Listening to the futile words, the teacher shakes his head, smiles, and picking up a ripe luscious mango, bites into it. Writing about the benefits of hatha yoga is a little like this. If you practice poses, breathing and relaxation, no words are necessary because you "have tasted the mango." If you haven't tried a yoga class, words are probably not powerful enough by themselves to convince you. Experience, as the wise tell us, is the only true teacher. 

While there has been some scientific documentation of the benefits of yoga, what is more important to consider about yoga are the responses of those who have practiced. Virtually without variation, yoga students will tell you that they feel better after a class, more relaxed, more centered. Students often report that headaches, back pain, anxiety, menstrual cramps and stress have changed or vanished. In more rare cases, students who have been trying to have a baby find they get good news at the doctor's office, others claim that the hip pain of decades' duration has vanished. Some people say they sleep through the night regularly for the first time in their lives. In more than one case, students have banished carpal tunnel syndrome, avoided surgery and generally found new balance and harmony in their lives. Whether these beneficial changes are related to an overall improvement in health and well-being or are due to a specific yoga pose, these healthy changes are deeply appreciated by yoga students. 

What can you expect when you start to practice yoga? First, you will probably notice an increase in overall flexibility; your muscles will gradually begin to release tension and tightness. Where else does "tension" live in our bodies but in our muscles? When your muscles relax, as they do during a massage or after taking a yoga class, this muscular relaxation will be interpreted as a generalized reduction in tension and mental stress. Additionally, you may even find that you can bend over and touch the floor with your knees straight, which the average 30-year-old cannot do! 

Another benefit you may notice with yoga practice is that you are more in touch with your breathing. Yoga poses are practiced in harmony with the breath. One of the residues of this constant concentration on breath is that students tend to pay more attention to their breath outside of class. Most students report they are surprised to learn that they find themselves holding their breath frequently during the day in response to stress. By learning to notice their breath-holding they can begin to break the habit. When one breathes easily throughout the day, less tension will accumulate in the body.

Finally, one of the most important things you can learn from a yoga class is that your thoughts have the ability to affect your overall contentment and health. During the deep relaxation pose (savasana), one systematically relaxes every part of the body, even suggesting that the brain itself is "relaxed." During conscious relaxation, thoughts are experienced more as an energy which is associated with the brain than as the sum total of who we are. We have thoughts, but those thoughts no longer take over our bodies and minds at large -- triggering tension, anxiety or other responses. Yoga teaches us that consciousness and thoughts are not the same thing.   

During relaxation we are able to let the thoughts flow through us without dancing away with them to the past or the future. We remain conscious, allowing the thoughts to come through us, but we learn not to interact with them. We can say to ourselves, "Oh, there's another thought of dinner, or of person 'X' or of fear about tomorrow's meeting." Then we can let go of that thought and return to the relaxation at hand. This is a meditative practice, which gradually over time allows us to "dis-identify" with our thoughts. When thoughts are experienced just as thoughts, not as reality itself, then the path to freedom which yoga promises begins to unfold naturally. And that path is as sweet as a perfectly ripe mango. 

(This article first appeared on the Yoga Page of www.thriveonline.com)

 

 

 

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