Yoga for Clarity, Kindness and Joy
By Tara Anne Kearney
I was 18 when I took my first yoga class. In my childhood I had wanted to be a dancer. As a lot of us do, I had packed that dream away. I hadn’t danced in years and I felt very disconnected from my physical body. I was nervous but I urged myself to go to a free taster class. The practice hit me like a steam train. Waves of emotion, waves of panic, waves of confusion, waves of understanding. I felt I had to dig deeper. My body and mind felt like a knot I could actively unravel through the practice.
I decided to title this piece ‘Yoga for clarity, kindness, and joy’ because they were the 3 initial benefits I reaped from a regular yoga practice. Clarity of mind: a reduction in the fog and distractions that pull us away from being in the present moment. Kindness and an open heart towards myself: which allowed for a greater understanding and empathy for others. And, of course, joy! The tingling endorphins generated from moving your body in sync with your breath, excitement when your body does something new, laughter when you fall on your face (that last one is of utmost importance ^^).
So: 5 little experiments to bring yoga into your day-to-day life.
1. Mula Bandha
If you’ve ever been to a yoga class you may have heard the teacher to tell you to ‘engage Mula Bandha’. The best way I can describe Mula Bandha in contemporary Western terms is to lift the pelvic floor. It’s similar to the feeling of tensing to stop peeing mid-flow. Some physical practices call it a ‘kegel’. Essentially it’s lifting your deep internal muscles located around your perineum. The great thing about this exercise is that it’s invisible. You can do it when you’re standing on the train, waiting for the kettle to boil, or whilst listening to a friend recount their day… and no one will know! Unless you make a face whilst doing it… in which case they might ask if you’re feeling okay. So why am I doing this? Strengthening your pelvic floor is the beginning of a long and intricate journey into strength and groundedness, both emotional and physical. It’s also just a little reminder of the intricacies of your physical body. Strength is not just something aesthetic displayed through our external muscles. It is also a fine and intricate internal tapestry.
Ancient Sanskrit chants have withstood time for a reason. The sounds created by such words have a particular resonance that touch on what we may call truth, or the divine. If you can, find a quiet space where you don’t feel self-conscious. The simplest chant, which is often first introduced, is ‘Om’ (aum). In Eastern philosophy this is thought to be the primordial sound, the vibrational tone from which the universe originated. Even if you don’t hold this belief, what a beautiful idea! Take a deep inhalation through the nose, and exhale on the sound of ‘Om’. Don’t force it: it doesn’t have to be loud. Enjoy it, the feeling of space in your soft palate, the feeling of your vocal chords vibrating your entire body. Another simple chant I learnt early on in my practice was ‘Sat Nam’. This can be translated as ‘true identity’ or ‘I identify as truth’. Before getting wrapped in the philosophy of the statement, I encourage you to enjoy the sound. Try and intone both words on the exhale, making sure you have enough breath. Sometimes the meaning will appear, without logic, simply through intoning the sound.
3. Open body, open mind
I believe the body actually is the mind. It is a manifestation and reflection of what we feel and believe. When I began to deepen my flexibility, I noticed changes in my personality beyond what I ever expected. I became more open minded, more open hearted, and I began to release past traumas and experiences I felt were ‘tightening me up’. The body stores emotion, and this is beautiful: it tells a story. But I feel if we want to live fully in the moment, we need to start to move beyond these narratives: and yoga can help us do that. Little and often is the absolute key to flexibility. If you’re very new to the idea of yoga, perhaps pick one part of your body you want to open. Every day do a yoga pose which will help you stretch and lengthen this part of yourself. Stay in the pose for a good few minutes. If it’s an asymmetrical pose, make sure to do the other side. Be curious! What emotions does this bring up within you? What memories, images, colours? Imagine breathing sparkling light into the place you hold tension. Exhale smokey darkness.
4. Anuloma Viloma
One of my favourites for clarity and relaxation! Otherwise known as alternate nostril breathing. Take the right hand and bend middle and index finger into the palm. Alternatively you can place these two fingers on your ‘third eye’ (in the middle of your forehead between your brows). Close your right nostril with your thumb and breathe exclusively through your left nostril. When you feel ready, at the top of the inhale, close left nostril with your ring and little finger, and exhale through the right nostril only. Repeat a few times and then you can begin to hold both nostrils in between inhales and exhales. Eventually you can breathe in a pattern like this: breathe in through left nostril for the count of six, close both nostrils and hold the breath for a count of six, exhale through the right nostril for the count of eight. Repeat, beginning with the other side (so you will end up exhaling through the left nostril for the count of eight at the end). When you feel ready, you can shorten the inhale to a count of four, and extend the holding of the breath to a count of sixteen (though this should be very gradually worked up to). Extending your exhalations works wonders for calming the body.
5. Practice Ahisma
According to yogic philosophy there are five ‘Yamas’ or observances to follow for a happy and peaceful life. Ahimsa means non-violence, and this can be anything from non-violence to others, to yourself, or to the environment. Perhaps pick one area in your life where Ahimsa could be more developed. A few examples: you could practice Ahimsa through the way you eat, by opting for a vegan diet to cause less harm to other living beings and the environment. You could practice Ahimsa by thrifting or buying from ethical clothing brands to minimise the harm caused to other humans who may have been exploited in the making of certain garments. You could also practice Ahimsa by mindfully observing your thoughts, and figuring out why harmful judgments towards yourself and others arise. We are what we think, and so if we hold on to harsh and negative opinions about ourselves and others, we are existing in the thrall of violent thinking.
As you can see, yoga is not just a movement-based practice. I hope I have offered something for everyone to try out. If you didn’t know anything about yoga, or didn’t think it was for you, I hope you have found something that speaks to you from these practices. The word ‘yoga’ can be translated to ‘yoke’, to ‘unite’. How we wish to interpret this can be far reaching: to unite assumed separate parts of ourselves (mind and body, for example), to unite us with something divine, to practice what some traditions call ‘oneness’. In addition to all this I think yoga unites us as people, creating communities filled with intention and care for one and other. Yogis, unite!