Yoga teachers and students are often asked what makes yoga different from other forms of exercise. The answer usually has to do with the mind - body connection. But what is the mind body connection and how is it useful to us? Partially, it is simply becoming more aware and focused during yoga, hoping that carries over into the rest of our daily activities. But, there is more to it. On a deeper level, one of the things we learn to do in yoga is take the mind throughout the body to observe even the smallest and subtlest actions.
We all have physical habits and ways of doing things that have become ingrained over the years. We lead with one leg or arm, shift our weight a particular way when we stand and lean one way or the other when we sit. It is rare that these habits are good for us. Though there is not immediate harm, over time, imbalances are created; one hip, knee or shoulder becomes tighter that the other and may end up injured or as a source of chronic discomfort.
Retraining From Inside Out
Part of our job as yoga students is to explore the body from inside, using our internal senses and perceptions to seek out and identify these imbalances. Some are easy to find; some may take years or decades of yoga practice and keenly tuned awareness. The next step is to begin retraining the body from within. Instead of gross muscle movements, subtle shifts are required, keeping the mind in tune with fine pointed movements on a micro level.
Stretching the Mind Within the Body
These kinds of efforts and actions take lots of practice. As with any new skill that we are eager to learn, patience is important. A seemingly simple exercise is to stand in tadasana, mountain pose. After a few moments, bring your awareness to your feet. One foot and leg bear more of the weight than the other, and one foot will feel tighter, less willing to stretch and spread than the other. Can you make any subtle changes that bring the left and right sides more into balance?
In some ways, this exercise becomes more difficult the longer you stay in tadasana. Spend a couple of minutes and notice the changes that start to take place. The weight may shift from side to side; tightness may start to show up on one side of the hips or lower back.
These kinds of observations are the first steps needed to retrain the body and the mind. By learning to identify the subtle states of our body, we can begin to learn how to change the body from within. The body and mind are brought together; the result is yoga.