Immersing myself fully in the yoga and meditation lifestyle that Ubud offers started as a mere curiosity for me, but has now evolved into a full-blown appreciation for the effects that it has on my mind, body, and soul. The inner-cynic in me that scoffed at things as being too ‘new-agey’ has silenced amidst the intoxicating inner-results that the practice offers.
For the past few years I thought yoga was just about stretching the body. It’s a common misconception that many people make, thinking that the mind only plays a small part. But being immersed in a 7-day unlimited class pass at Yoga Barn has given me access to the best of the best teachers who clearly have dedicated their lives to these practices. And the results are palpable. Each of these teachers stress that the importance of yoga is to discover the connection between mind and body, and subsequently soul (a word that can be interpreted as you please, if at all).
This mind-body connection is so crucial and it shocks me that it’s overlooked in the West. Doctors like Vancouver-based Gabor Mate have written books on the matter (When the Body Says No) , but still to heavy criticism by those who refuse the idea that our minds play a part in physical diseases. No one wants to believe that stress and difficult emotional times can bring on physical pain or disease (which literally means dis-ease, as in, not being relaxed). After all, stress has become a way of showing how productive we are. Yet the fact that people are afraid to explore this topic is what becomes very worrying. This claim doesn’t mean that if you’re sick that you’re stressed. There are many ways that people can fall ill, but this book shows a connection between mind and body, and saying that oftentimes the mind is responsible for much of the sickness that ensues.
Another doctor, Lissa Rankin, wrote a book called The Fear Cure, which explains how we view fear and how it does us more harm than good. One example is what Rankin calls True Fear vs. False Fear. True Fear is a legitimate response from our body when we find ourselves in danger. For instance, I see a mangy-looking dog approaching me and I'm all alone. My initial fear response is valid- my body tenses, my senses become more alert-- I need to get away to protect myself.
But then there’s False Fear. It’s the dialogue that the mind creates that says, ‘That dog must have rabies. It’s going to bite me, I’m going to have to fly to an expensive hospital in Singapore to be treated, I’m going to lose a ton of money, I’m never going to trust animals again, or insects for that matter… I’ll probably get Dengue Fever from the mosquitos too’ – this dialogue is the harm that these doctors refer to. It’s the thing that lasts and stays with us and results in stress and potentially much more strain on the body. Rabies and Dengue are very real concerns, but I’m completely guilty of worrying about these things when there’s little that can be done anyway.
Now I haven’t done the research the way these authors have, but I have in fact participated in multiple yoga and meditation classes over the past week. And yes, in case you’re wondering, I’m willing to back these claims based on a week of yoga.
Those practicing yoga in the right setting should be able to identify the mind-body connection so seamlessly, just as I did in a matter of days. This isn’t meant to be an egotistical statement, it’s meant to be clear that the correlation is right there, just below surface level, yet so many don’t want to dig to find it. All the paper and logic in the world won’t help us discover it; it requires inward exploration – the root of what is missing in so many of us.
A world of endless stimuli means we hardly need to look inwardly. Why ask ourselves how we’re feeling when we can Google symptoms? Instead of thinking what’s best for most of us, we check online and read endless reviews in order to satiate our skeptical minds. We wait for approval and fail to trust our own judgment and intuition just because there are other options to consider.
Flashback to yoga class earlier this week. I’m laying on the mat in a plank position. My right leg shoots forward between my hands, left leg and knee collapses to the ground. I’m now in a type of lunge position. The stretch is meant to deeply work the hips as I lean forward into the posture. And from there, I’m meant to hold it for five minutes without shifting out of it. This is known as The Dragon, and it’s a tough one since we spend so many hours sitting and abusing our hips. It’s painful, but in a good way. At first I feel my body trembling, my breathing erratic. But then the teacher reminds us to return to the breath and focus on where we’re all directing our energy. This is part of the practice of Yin Yoga- a fascinating series of postures that are bold and challenging, and meant to be held for a long period of time.
So I listen to the instructor and I return to my breath. I take a slow, conscious 4-second inhale directing it into the aching part of my hips. That means my mind is focused on the tension instead of ignoring it, and my breath is sent towards it. Then, I take a 4-second exhale, loosening the body and easing the pain away. Sure enough, after minutes of doing this, I feel my body settle into a comfortable position. The posture remains difficult, but the challenge that it presented was key. It’s not about endurance or strength; it’s about realizing that we can study the pain in our bodies that our mind created in the first place, which alleviates so much of that very same pain. It isn’t about getting rid of the pain, it’s about changing how we view the pain since the mind causes so much unnecessary dialogue around these things.
On this past Sunday evening there was one final class for the day called Restorative Yoga. I must admit that much of my practice this week has been based around slow classes as opposed to the Power or Hatha style yoga classes. But something about these slow classes has had the greatest effect on me and it seems to coincide exactly with this adventure that I’m on. The very name of the class, restorative, felt as though I was reconciling out-of-balance problems in my life.
The purpose of this class was to find comfortable postures on the floor (as opposed to the more challenging Yin Yoga poses) and then hold them comfortably for ten minutes. As the class progressed, the sun began to set around us and the energy of the room decreased in the most calming of ways. The music was quiet and the sounds to be heard were of the jungle around us. Cicadas, trees rustling, birds in the distance, and evening stillness. With our eyes closed for much of the class we were instructed to focus on the meditative aspect of these postures. Primarily, with attention to the breathing and attention to where our thoughts bring us. By the end of the class my eyes slowly opened to the dimly lit outdoor space -- a space of over 50 people, all seeming more calm and reflective than when we walked in. This is the power of yoga.
I did have another mini revelation during that restorative yoga class. As I lay on my back in the dark space, I admit that I opened my eyes when she told us to keep them closed. I peeled my head off the floor and looked around the room. A massive outdoor space of over 50 bodies, laying on their backs. The sun was gone, the room was still. I realized that I was completely alone here on the other side of the world. I was on this adventure alone. Despite all the wonderful people I’d met and socialized with, none of them were from my previous life.
This was not a moment for panic, nor a moment of regret. It was a simple realization of my thoughts. A realization that even on the other side of the world, amidst a crowd of ‘strangers’ I can feel this incredible. All the fears and anxiety and worries about travelling alone were nonsense. This is where I am meant to be right now. My body feels good, my mind feels good. If we’re to bring any logic into this whole spiritual conversation, then:
if body is good + if mind is good = soul is good.
Soul remains an abstract concept to me, but more and more I feel it revealing itself to me.
In what ways do you let your mind harm your body?