Benefits of Yoga Asanas

Yoga asanas are a new element of yoga, relatively speaking. Yoga was originally developed as a spiritual practice and meditation was the popular method of yoga practice. However, at some point, probably around the 19th and 20th century, Hatha yoga, became popular, particularly in the West.

Hatha yoga is the branch of yoga that the physical practice of yoga was developed and where we get most of the asanas that we have today. So what are the benefits of of yoga asanas?

Well, the answer to this question is a big one, but here are a few that spring to mind. It is a common misconception that yoga is just stretching. In reality, yoga has physical benefits far beyond lengthening the hamstrings. Yoga asanas help to improve full body strength in a different way than traditional strength training.

Although flexibility is improved, it is more the mindful approach to moving the body that develops excellent proprioception. Proprioception is the awareness that one has of where each part of their body is in space at all times. This sense that is developed over time, allows the practitioner to reach much deeper poses as they have a lot more control, rather than throwing themselves recklessly into shapes.

Another benefit of practising yoga asanas is learning to deal with uncomfortable situations, which can be applied off the mat. Being in an asana that is strenuous on muscles or balance and accepting it can develop an incredibly strong mental resolve and is an excellent tool to use day to day in any situation. This is something that beginners tend to struggle with but once the breath control develops, usually the asanas come much easier.

Of course an obvious physical benefit of yoga asanas is the core strength that is developed. Every single asana that exists requires a tight core. Abs and lower back require to be engaged in some way at all times, doing this on a regular basis yield amazing core strength that is functional and far more beneficial than doing hundreds of push ups (far more enjoyable too).

Something that tends to be overlooked as a benefit and is not really taught much in traditional yoga classes is mobility. There are great developments in mobility but it was not fully understood when yoga asanas were first developed. Mobility can be described as applying strength to move joints around in their full range of motion. People tend to confuse this with flexibility but it is not the same. Someone can be flexible and pull or push limbs into positions. Being mobile means using the strength of that joint to get into the same position.

It is common for people to say they are inflexible and have tight hips for example. In reality it is more likely that they have poor mobility in their hip flexors. This is very common in today’s world where sitting for long periods of time has become the norm. What yoga asanas also work that a lot of other exercise regimes miss is the psoas muscle. The psoas muscle is the only muscle that connects the lower and upper body and is usually a neglected body part when it comes to training.

I try to compliment my yoga asana practice with some mobility training and it has helped my yoga practice immensely. I’d love to know what you get from your asana practice?

Flow

I have just finished a book called Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. It talks about flow and how it can be applied in different fields and what can be achieved when applying it, but what is flow?

Flow is an optimal state of consciousness that was first studied and popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. A flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, can be described as a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. When it is put this way, it sounds really like the concept of mindfulness, in that, all attention is focused on what is occurring right now.

People from many different fields can use this flow state to enhance their performance, extreme sports, writers, coders and deep meditators all achieve this flow state. It is when we are in this state that the best version of ourselves come out. It has been shown that more people that access flow on a regular basis the more happiness these people feel in their lives.

Having read this book, I have become obsessed with flow and try to use it on a regular basis. Whenever I am working on completing a task, like writing this blog post for example, I am fully focused on now and not later or before. It is amazing how many times in life that this flow state is regularly accessed without thinking about it. Try to remember a task that you have performed that seemed to just happen, time passed by quickly and it was like you weren’t trying at all, it all just happened. That is flow in action.

In extreme instances this becomes a necessity, for example, competing martial artists would have to fully focus on the present, their opponents’ actions and their own reactions to these actions. At no point would they be thinking of how they prepared or what is going to happen afterwards, they are fully focused on each second, as it happens, relying on conditioned responses repeated in training.

According to Stealing Fire, a flow state is achieved when one experiences, STER. STER stands for Selflessness (sense of self disappears), Timelessness (hours seem like minutes), Effortlessness (your tasks you are immersed in seems much easier), and Richness (insight and information in vivid detail).

I personally have experienced flow multiple times in my life but never really knew the psychology behind it, I’m sure you have too. I remember in my younger days, being immersed in computer games for hours and hours and being shocked to realise it was 3am. I used to also play live music and playing a one hour set on stage felt like a couple of minutes, songs would be over in what seemed like a matter of seconds.

I would highly recommend this book, it really is fascinating, and I can’t do it justice discussing it here. I look forward to learning more about flow, have you any suggestions for books, podcasts or videos I should check out? Let me know in the comments.

Mental Health

When I first started practising yoga, I thought it would be a good addition to my workout regime. A couple of classes later and I knew that this is something I wanted to become good at. The physical practice really challenged me and encouraged me to be consistent and learn as much as possible. After a couple of weeks, I started to feel better mentally. I started to feel like I wanted to be friendlier to people and be positive in general. Before, sitting in traffic for a long period of time would have put me in a pit of anger and despair, but now I was looking at this in a different light and embracing some time to sit and breathe. I was accepting things as they were and not as they should be.

This, in turn, got me interested in meditation. I began to learn about meditation off the mat and wanted to incorporate this into my daily routine. Reading books on yoga, meditation and psychology has become a fond pastime and I really feel that I have already learned so much (I have included a short list below of some of these books). I have also listened to many experts in their related fields on podcasts, checked out YouTube videos and really focused my free time on studying the mind. I guess my goal was to become an optimised thinker and have control over my life through a strong mind.

Practising meditation, breathing techniques and learning about the power of the mind has become an obsession for me and I have enjoyed the journey so far. I tell people about how positive an effect meditation has had on my mind but there is something that I am being dishonest about, not just to them and you, but with myself.

A little history on my life. When I was born, my father was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, a crippling neuro-degenerative disease which is generally terminal. When I was 6 it did in fact claim his life. This trauma that I suffered is not really something that I have ever spoken about and what’s worse is, I have no real memory of my life leading up to this, the event itself and several years afterwards. With meditation having a positive effect on my life now and how I handle all what life throws at me in this moment, there is an elephant in the room that I have not addressed.

So, last week, I decided to act and booked into multiple sessions with a councillor to talk to. I felt like strengthening my mind and body through yoga and meditation is great and will help me to be an optimised human being physically and mentally. However, it is analogous to working on the exterior of a car while not addressing the faults in the engine.

Why did I feel the need to post this personal information on my blog? Well, I am fully aware that mental health is not discussed enough, and it is something people tend to shy away from. This shouldn’t be the case, especially with the statistics on male suicide. There is a correlation to men not discussing their emotions and the numbers of suicide. Men account for every 8 out of 10 deaths by suicide and I feel it is no coincidence that standard male culture is to bottle up feelings and emotions.

I am writing this as an encouragement to others to speak about their emotions, their feelings and their personal experiences. Even now, I am glad I have put this out there and it feels like a weight has been lifted from me.

Mental health should be discussed openly like physical health. If I was to break a leg while doing sports, I wouldn’t have any problem telling people what had happened. This should also be the case for mental health issues and there shouldn’t be any shame. I intend to be open about this subject going forward and plan to write about my experience with different grief related therapies I experience.

How does the subject of mental health make you feel?

List of books that I have read and recommend:

Perfectly Imperfect: The Art and Soul of Yoga Practice

A Life Worth Breathing: A Yoga Master’s Handbook of Strength, Grace, and Healing

The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System As a Path to the Self