The Emotional Benefits of Yoga
By Jessica Hildebrand , Yoga Instructor at the YMCA of Greater Brandywine
The practice of yoga offers students a carefully curated combination of movement, stillness and breath - all overlaid with a beautiful veil of intention. The more intention and attention we bring to our practice, the more we can hope to gain from each element.
From an emotional perspective, yoga builds and strengthens our resilience, compassion and mental space.
When a thought arrives during our yoga practice, it isn’t the thought but our reaction to the thought that takes us out of the present moment and draws us into our thinking mind. Yoga helps teach us to come out of our minds and to return to the present moment. Off our mats, this skill can significantly serve us throughout our busy days.
It is just as valuable for us to practice our response to our performance in the postures as it is to enhance our comfort in the physical practice itself.
- When we lift our hips into Downdog, do we cringe and wish the time away, longing to lower to the comfort of our bellies?
- When we come into Tree pose, do we critique ourselves if our foot falls to the ground?
- When we transition to Warrior II, do we analyze how deeply we can bend into our front leg or how straight our arms lengthen outwards?
Our minds will respond to our performance and constantly seek opportunities to improve. Through thoughtful intention, we can welcome our time on the mat to be a practice in resilience, compassion and slowing down.
We can strengthen our belief in ourselves with each posture. When we linger in a posture and worry we won’t be able to remain there, we can return to a slow, careful breath. By continuing our practice on the mat, even when it gets difficult, we show ourselves that we are capable and that we are strong enough to carry on.
This strength can originate in our minds even before we show it physically in our movements. Each time we are introduced to a new posture or a new way of experiencing a pose, we are given a chance to deepen that resilience.
When we give something a try, even though it may be challenging or we may not “get it” immediately, we accept our yoga practice as a process. We continue with it. And we build our comfort - both physically and emotionally. We energize our resilience and personal belief in ourselves on our mat.
Then we can return to this resilience in our daily lives. Through work stressors, family challenges, or health concerns, we can access the strength and resilience fortified between our postures.
We can also increase the compassion we show ourselves through any gaps felt in our practice. Our practice may not look the same every day, sometimes our performance of a posture doesn’t even look the same on both sides of our body.
We are not meant to look like the cover of a magazine when performing our poses. Rather we are meant to feel into them, to honor where we are and to welcome the practice to empower us. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
We can deepen the kindness we show ourselves by observing our practice and our performance without judgment. To see, feel, and notice where we are without heavy critique or evaluation. To refrain from ranking our time on the mat and instead just be in it.
When we have to set our foot down for a moment during a balance posture, we can continue this compassion practice. In the simplicity of picking our foot back up and trying again rather than giving up, rolling our eyes, or even ceasing to return to class, we offer ourselves kindness. We recognize the effort in showing up, trying again and caring enough for ourselves to prioritize time on our mat.
Our resilience continues to expand and the sweetness we show ourselves grows. This practice of compassion can be carried outside of our yoga practice when we “fall” in our daily responsibilities. Any mistakes made, deadlines missed, or dinners burnt are comparable opportunities to be kind to ourselves and continue to strengthen that muscle. The sweet seeds of self-compassion can be watered each and every time we practice yoga.
Our active minds can make us feel like we are living in fast-forward -- things to do, problems to solve and goals to be accomplished. With such a crowded headspace, how could we possibly find room to slow down, to be quiet or to just sit and be?
A yoga practice blesses us with this exact space. A space to quiet down, to sit and be present. This downshift from our normal hectic days can feel foreign and uncomfortable, but our yoga practice and teachers offer us guidance and support.
With each moment and with each movement, we have the chance to begin again. When thoughts arise or when our to-do list replaces our intention in our mind’s eye, we can breathe. And we can start again.
We can practice:
- starting again on our mat.
- moving with intention through our postures.
- sitting with eyes closed and honoring our present moment in our breathwork.
- slowing down while still getting in a full practice.
This reminds us that we too can welcome a more intentional pace to our lives and that we can still accomplish what needs to be accomplished.
Our yoga practice holds the space for us to exist - to move, to sit, to breathe, and to start again - with care, intention, and enjoyment. We practice on our mats such that we can leverage this approach in our lives.
We breathe in and we breathe out. And with each exhale, we create a bit more space. And we allow this space to generate calm and contentment in our active, achieving minds.
At the conclusion of our practice, we bow to honor the light in ourselves and in our fellow classmates. But throughout our entire practice, we honor and tend to our own emotional wellness. With continued practice and intention, we can cultivate personal resilience, show ourselves deeper compassion and kindness, and welcome more space into our minds and into our lives.