Yoga beyond the mat
By Josefin Söderby
Many of us associate yoga with physical activity or gentle movements on the yoga mat while focusing on our breath. It is indeed a part of yoga, but only a small part. When we look at the philosophy of yoga, specifically Patanjali's The 8 limbs of yoga, it becomes clear that the physical aspect of yoga (which is typically associated with yoga in the West) - asanas and poses - is just one of the eight limbs. If you talk to people who practice yoga daily, you will also notice that it's not just about moving on the mat that keeps them coming back. Something much deeper happens, a subtle change that occurs within us. It brings us inner peace, increased presence, and harmony in life, just to name a few of the benefits.
More than just moving on a mat
A central figure in yoga that I want to come back to is Patanjali, an Indian philosopher who lived around 200 BCE. His work, "Yoga Sutras", is an incredibly complex and profound description of yoga that can be read and reread without fully capturing its fluid meaning. But when experienced, everything suddenly becomes a bit clearer. From Patanjali's texts also comes The 8 limbs of yoga, which, in my opinion, excellently describes the different aspects of yoga. As the name implies, it consists of eight parts that and if followed, together will guide you to enlightenment and total inner peace.
These parts encompass how we act towards ourselves, our surroundings, our body, and our mind. To provide a few brief examples, it can involve cleanliness, truthfulness, restraint, discipline, withdrawing the mind, practicing yoga, meditation, and much more. Each part in itself could be the subject of a separate article, so if you want to delve deeper, I recommend reading more about what they entail here.
What can yoga teach us in life?
Yoga is an incredibly personal journey, and it is truly a journey. It offers a multitude of benefits and lessons that can impact various aspects of life. It not only touches our physical health but also our ability to reduce stress, achieve relaxation, increase clarity and presence, and create a greater connection and balance in our emotions. For many, yoga can also become a path to personal growth or open the door to spirituality and connection to something greater.
Stress is something we are all familiar with. It is constantly present and affects us to varying degrees in our daily lives. One area where yoga truly helps is stress management. Through yoga and meditation, we return to presence and to our breath. By using yoga as a physical and mental practice, we approach presence, reduce stress, increase our concentration, and develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and our emotions. Yoga is a personal journey, and the benefits can vary depending on the individual's commitment and practice.
How can yoga help you in the stressful everyday life?
The physical practice, combined with breathing, helps us activate our parasympathetic nervous system - our "rest and digest" system, which means we enter a non-stressed state. Although physical practice can be challenging for the body and, like any exercise, can be a stressor for the body, through our breathing, we can signal to the nervous system that we are safe. The controlled and calm breath in and out through the nose sends a signal to the body that we are in a safe and calm state.
This is one of the most important lessons that yoga can teach us and something we can apply in our daily lives. Despite the body being stressed, with the help of our breath, we can find inner calmness. Personally, the Navasana pose, also known as "boat pose", where we sit on our sitting bones with the body in a V shape, has been extremely helpful for me. It is a demanding position that can easily make us clench our jaw and tense our whole body. It happened to me in the beginning, as the position is physically challenging. But by maintaining a calm and controlled breath, I can stay in the position more easily and feel that I have control. It's something I have taken with me into stressful situations in everyday life.
Our breath - a powerful tool
Our breath is probably one of the most powerful tools we possess, although many of us are not aware of it. Research has shown that breathing can reduce stress and anxiety. According to Dr. Kennedy, who spoke in Forbes Health, breathing exercises, especially those emphasizing prolonged and controlled breaths, can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce the stress response.
Harvard Medical School has also conducted research in this area. In the 1970s, Dr. Herbert Benson developed methods to induce the body's relaxation response through various techniques such as meditation, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation. What these methods have in common is the focus on deep breathing. You can read more about the power of our breath in Sofie Kraft's article: The power of your breath.
The power of the breath is an untapped resource that can help us manage stress and regain inner balance. By learning to use our breath consciously, we can experience a profound effect on our well-being and mental health.
How does yoga look in everyday life for me as a yoga teacher?
For me, yoga has truly evolved into more than just a physical practice on the mat. It has become a lifestyle and a way of living that infuses my daily life.
For example, when I look into one of the branches in a limb (Yama) of The eight limbs of yoga, Ahimsa - non-violence, it's not only about avoiding external violence. For me, it also means not cultivating negative thoughts about myself or others. It's about listening to and respecting my body - resting when it's tired, eating when it needs nourishment, and not overdoing or pushing myself too hard. Even though I strive for Ahimsa - non-violence, I am also human just like everyone else. Sometimes I get stressed and treat my body unhealthily. It can involve overexercising, being restrictive with my diet, or having negative thoughts about myself, both internally and externally. Despite these occurrences in my life, I strive to reduce these destructive behaviors and instead uplift myself, my body, and my mind.
I also want to emphasize the power of breath. I have personally experienced anxiety and panic attacks from time to time. In the beginning, I didn't know how to handle them, which made it overwhelming and difficult. Today, I experience anxiety less frequently, and I am convinced that yoga has played a significant role in that. So when anxiety occasionally arises, I have tools that help me manage it quickly. I find my deep breath, close my eyes, and take time for myself. By sitting down and writing in my journal, I can understand what has triggered the uncomfortable feeling. I would say that the presence and harmony that yoga has brought into my life have made me more calm and secure with myself. It's something I hope you will also find if you have started walking this beautiful path of wonder and inner peace.
Join us on a personal journey of self-discovery and explore the benefits of yoga that go beyond the physical positions (asanas). In the West, yoga is often seen as a form of exercise on a yoga mat, but its origins, philosophy, and dedicated practitioners know that it is so much more. What really happens to the body and mind? Yoga is a deeply personal journey, but let us provide you with a glimpse into why so many yogis return to the mat time and time again, and how yoga invites a life filled with presence, serenity, and harmony beyond the yoga mat.