It is common knowledge that regular physical activity is good for our mental state and helps reduce depressive tendencies. Getting the heart pumping and the lungs working brings circulation, oxygen, and energy to the body and directly affects the brain.
Many people assume that the mental benefits of yoga come from the simple fact that the body is moving. But the meditative practices of therapeutic hatha yoga systems work on much different, much deeper, and much longer-lasting levels than this.
One important training method is the constant attempt to hold completely still, physically and mentally.
As I have explained previously, therapeutic hatha yoga is based on holding stillness in postures, but it also involves holding still while NOT in postures.
In class we sometimes feel the need to scratch a part of the body, wipe a stream of sweat trickling down our face or arms, pace around the mat, shift our weight back and forth, or look around the room. When we choose to immediately react to these discomforts, “fix” the situation, or distract ourselves for a moment, we strengthen the pattern of reacting. (And this carries over into similar patterns in life, family, and work.)
However, when we choose to hold still and to let the discomfort pass, we train the mind not to react instantaneously to uncomfortable sensations or thoughts. When we step back from the itch or the sweat, prioritize calm breathing, and decide to be still anyway, we start changing the mind into a tool of awareness and conscious, deliberate action rather than compulsiveness, distraction, and reaction. These new patterns stay with us outside of the yoga room and help create a new “normal” state in the mind and brain.
Sometimes we call it “yoga brain.”
Ann Chrapkiewicz, M.A. (Medical Anthropology, MSU), is owner and principal of Bikram Yoga Capital Area. Visit bikramyogacapitalarea.com, or learn more by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.