This past year has been an “unprecedented” struggle for us all. As human beings, we just aren’t biologically built for enforced periods of social isolation. We crave meaningful connection and life can become extremely difficult without it.
Six months into the pandemic and I had reached my lowest point. I realised I had to do something about my deteriorating mental health by finding genuine meaning away from changeable, external circumstances. That’s when my formerly sporadic yoga practice became my lifeboat keeping me afloat. It wasn’t so much the exercise element (although I’m sure it released some much-needed endorphins), as much as the meditational aspect of it.
Before the pandemic, I’d tried to get into yoga several times as a route to toning up, getting more flexible, and increasing my mobility, but I never fully ‘got’ it. It was only when I made a conscious choice to really delve into the breath, rather than focussing on what I could or couldn’t do in terms of movement, that I fully understood what yoga was all about.
Removing myself from the external world and focussing purely on this moving meditation… Connecting my breath with my body… Acknowledging the limitations of my flexibility and strength and surrendering into it… The last 5 minutes of practice – which often turns into 10 or even 20 – of śavāsana (meditation). Eyes closed, body fully relaxed, palms upturned, lungs exhaling and contracting…
In that moment, I forget I’m in the midst of a pandemic. I am simply present in this one moment of stillness. All that matters is the consistent rhythm of breath, and the subsequent relieving wave of calm that washes over my entire body, warming it from the inside out.
I love it. It’s unlocked a state of peace within me that I never had access to before, and I want to give more people the key.
Yoga being good for your mental health isn’t exactly ground-breaking news: most of us know that it’s good for us in theory. The temptation, however, when you first start practicing, is to simply act out a vinyasa flow as a physical workout. I found it far too easy to skip the whole mind-body-breath connection that my yoga teacher kept harping on about, not realising that the entire point of the practice was to do just that. Yoga itself means to yoke, to create unity, and the energy that is harnessed through the practice is exactly what will make you feel refreshed, rejuvenated and uplifted both on and off the mat.
Unfortunately, yoga’s long and complex history is very rarely explored in the average yoga class. There’s a lot we can learn from the yogis in ancient India, whose aim was not to be able to touch their toes, or straighten their legs, or do the splits. Their aim was simple: spiritual enlightenment. Whilst I won’t claim to have quite reached that stage (yet!), I can definitely attest to the fact that a consistent meditative yoga practice has helped me relinquish some of my ego, reduced my anxiety, enhanced my energy, and helped me cultivate greater awareness.
Returning to yoga’s roots
Nowadays, yoga feels like a bit of an exclusive club. A lot of us don’t particularly resonate with the dominant image of yoga, as it’s transformed into a symbol of an aspirational lifestyle in the West. Google ‘yoga’ and you’ll find a load of images of perfect looking people performing perfect asanas, alienating the majority of the population and discouraging us from trying because we feel we won’t be good at it.
The ancient forms of yoga were nothing like the demanding postures we see today. If we look at Pantajali’s Yogasutras, dated around 200 BCE and known as the Yoga ‘bible’, the physical postures that contemporary yoga revolves around, known as asanas, are just one of yoga’s eight limbs.
All of the other limbs, such as pranayama (breath control) and samadhi (contemplation), were more important than asana. In fact, the Yogasutra is the ONLY yogic source from ancient India that even so much as mentions asana – and, even then, it’s only mentioned for a line or two!
Instead, the emphasis was about a unity of the body with the spirit, about enhancing consciousness, and forming a relationship with the Divine. Asanas were nothing like the Downward Dog or Cobra we see in modern yoga; they were just a few seated postures, used as a tool for the end goal of spiritual enlightenment. The holding of postures for a prolonged period of time was less to do with building strength or enhancing flexibility, and more to do with awakening 'Kundalini’, a dormant spiritual energy that lies within us all.
As Kundalini can be found in everyone, yoga is a universal practice, fully inclusive and accessible to every single person, regardless of their capacity for flexibility or strength.
There’s no such thing as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at yoga, or at least your success in it is most certainly not determined by your strength or flexibility – these are just added bonuses! It’s pranayama, the conscious breath, that lies at the heart of yoga. In the yogic tradition, the breath carries a person’s life force, and yoking the breath with the body is what leads to this revelation of selfhood. In moments of stillness and complete unity, you realise that everything you have been searching for has been right inside of you the entire time.
Yoga, spirituality and revolution
Yoga without spirituality can be seen as quite an individualistic practice. Yoga taught in the West has been commodified, stripped from its context, with the spiritual element all but completely removed. Instead, we are taught that the focus is on physical postures. Even when the focus is shifted to the mental, it’s on a personal note, marketed as a coping mechanism for the constant stresses and anxieties that are symptoms of capitalism.
Not much is said, however, about how yoga can also guide social change when implemented in tandem with the spiritual elements. The cultivation of a sense of Oneness, not just with yourself, but with the wider world around you, can lead to an enhanced awareness and alertness of all types of issues and injustices, creating inspiration for change.
In fact, we only have to look back in history to see how yoga has historically been a vehicle for social change in India. When India was colonised by the British, it was a sect of yogis who revolted and challenged colonial rule. Learning about this history of yoga as a form of rebellion, which has been erased from the dominant narrative, is what really showed me that there is potential for mindful practices to disrupt systemic inequalities.
There is a deep connection between spirituality and social justice. The journey begins with showing compassion and kindness to yourself, and then extending it to others. Most social justice movements have been guided by some kind of spiritual or religious teaching, and so I believe that returning to those roots will help create a more equal, loving and connected world.
On a personal note, I now feel a deeper connection with myself, with my ancestral homeland, and with the world and nature around me. I have learnt resilience, compassion, softness and strength. I am inspired by the beautiful form of rebellion that my people demonstrated when confronted by oppression. And I would like to help others find a world with a little less anxiety, and a little bit more peace, magic and connection, with both their inner selves and others.
Mark Singleton, ‘Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice’, 2010
James Mallinson : The Ascetic Roots of Yoga https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJo6YY-VdLk