The Benefits of Yoga: Mind, Body, and Spirit

On August 22nd, I wrote an article about Yoga for The Madison County News-Record and Sentinel . Below is the text from the article published below. I had a 400 word limit (impossible) which I came very close to with a lot of cuts. It doesn’t flow exactly how I’d like since style had to be sacrificed for the space to put in that wonderful picture taken during one of my retreats. It was published with minor changes and a title chosen by the editorial staff. Overall, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to write about something so dear to my heart, as a member of the local community. This is in Marshall, a small town, about 20 minutes north of Asheville, North Carolina.

Yoga for Body, Mind, and Spirit

While yoga is great for the body, a regular practice also nourishes subtler parts of the self. We become physically stronger, grounded, and centered, and so do our minds and spirits as we grow into our best selves.

Body

Yoga improves muscle tone, flexibility, and hormone regulation. Repeated postures on each side of the body slows brain activity, syncing the hemispheres and moving us into a calmer state. Cortisol reduces and natural chemicals release to relieve chronic inflammation and restore physiological systems. Deep stretches reduce tension and strain. As body awareness increases, we shift from thinking and doing to feeling and being.

Mind

Our minds can be considered in parts: basic survival instincts and drives such as securing shelter, nourishment, and human connection (stress responses like fight or flight also live here), while the discerning mind makes informed decisions. For instance, when hungry (basic drive), the discerning mind chooses salad instead of nachos.

The mind also holds defenses. Any trauma (we all have some) leaves us with a broken sense of trust (and other symptoms). They are useful defenses but can also work against us as distrust distances us from those who love us. Human connection is vital to our health.

When the mind holds tension so does the body, often below our conscious awareness. It settles in like a subtle fog that we don’t realize is there but that disrupts our sleep, concentration, and affects our relationships with a subtle anxiety.

Balancing postures sharpen concentration while long holds tone the nervous system, inducing a clearer and calmer state, on and off the mat. Over time we react less to life’s challenges and trust ourselves more.

Spirit

While physical injury and psychological trauma are obvious blocks to vitality, society goes against our basic instincts with food we can’t trust, a culture of fear, alarm clocks, too much work, and more. Our lifestyles demand constant output, but we are not static beings. Our bodies fatigue as we push through all seasons as though they are the same, losing alignment with the natural rhythms of our body and the planet, dampening our spiritual connection.

Yoga means union and is a spiritual practice at its core. This union is between you and whatever you connect with. For me, it is my intuitive self. You do not need to believe in traditional concepts of God to practice yoga.

While it’s unlikely that we can eat clean all of the time or take winters off, we can return to a healthier and more natural state as we address environmental stressors and psychological tensions through yoga. Beyond a workout, yoga instills a sense of peace, calm, strength, and confidence as we become more aligned at all layers of self. Our bodies improve and so do our minds, relationships, and the bigger picture of our lives.

Stephanie Toler hosts yoga retreats regularly in Marshall, NC. Check out her retreat packages at www.yoginistephanie.com. She also keeps a blog where she shares poetry and essays about yoga philosophy, spirituality, and life lessons at www.stephaniesfaith.com.

*Note* At the time I wrote this, I was in a very internally focused state and wrote this from the perspective of yoga as an internal practice. However, if I could give this article another go and had a higher word limit, I would include a section on heart. Yoga nourishes us: body, mind, HEART, and spirit. Not only is the practice itself heart-opening, but the connections I’ve made through yoga make up the bulk of my friendships and I am forever grateful for my yogi tribe.

Why I Teach Yoga

While studying yoga in Rishikesh, India this summer, I was overwhelmed with the the feeling that I needed to come back to the United States rather than return to Ecuador. I realized that as much as I loved it there, I am not able to be of service in the way that I’m meant to be. I realized that I should be teaching yoga here, to correct some serious misconceptions about the practice. We use yoga to obsess about our bodies, rather than to transcend them. We’ve lost the heart of yoga and can barely capture its essence.

I’ll admit, I started doing yoga back in college because I wanted a sexy body. And that’s okay! Our reason for coming doesn’t matter so long as we step onto the mat. Over time, I realized that I had never regretted going to a class. Nearly every class ended with a sense of deep inner-peace, the blossom of increased physical and emotional alignment.

The physical piece is important! We must tune our bodies so that we can cultivate enough body awareness to next tune into our energy. It’s becoming common knowledge that we are animated by a consciousness that weaves in and out everything. In yoga, we call this prana. In other parts of the East it is called, Xi/Qi, in Christianity it is the Holy Spirit, and in ancient Egypt, it was ka. This is not new information.

The alignment I was experiencing at the end of class was a shift in this energy. After years of practice not only am I slimmer and stronger, but my ability to connect with my internal guidance system – the divinity within – has grown tremendously. I have clarity and better judgment. I have focus, insight, and more willpower. I am stronger and more balanced on all levels of being.

Yoga opens our bodies up and addresses energetic blocks. These blocks keep prana from flowing freely throughout our bodies. When the energy is not flowing with-ease throughout the body, the result is dis-ease. Stuck or blocked energy comes from a number of sources such as past traumas, injuries, accidents, resentments, heartbreak, grief or deeply held anger.

Yoga became my first love once I fully grasped its transformative powers. When my mom passed away unexpectedly during my initial yoga teacher training, it became much more than a physical practice to me.

The first day of my initial YTT (yoga teacher training), I learned that my mother was in a coma. Halfway through the six weeks, she died. On the day I graduated, her ashes showed up in a box. My relationship to yoga changed and I’m fairly certain this was God’s intention. It was imperative that I see yoga for what it is – an opportunity to heal along a spiritual path. It has helped me to heal from my mother’s death and the residual effects of a messy childhood.

Overwhelmed by the impact of her passing on my heart, mind, and spirit – all three longing for attention and healing – I went to yoga for relief, a tradition full of healing techniques that addressed all parts of me. In yogic practices such as controlling the energetic body through understanding of the chakra system, pranayama (breathing techniques), mantra (chanting), meditation, and the physical practice itself, I coped with my grief.

This is not solely a conditioning of body, but a practice that renews your entire being. It is time and space, set aside, to do the kind of inner work that leads to a sense of wholeness and alignment with our true nature.

Emotions need to be processed and released from the body, lest they become disease. I have seen people change in the space of a week during an intensive yoga retreat. I’ve watched them lighten up, physically and emotionally. I’ve watched the stress melt away and life return to their cheeks. In fact, I’ve seen this happen in the space of an hour. I see the magic of yoga happen with every single class that I teach. This is why I love yoga. This is why I feel passionate about teaching yoga. It is so much more than a gym class.

Later this week I’ll explain how the body is viewed through the lens of yoga: the five koshas, our five layers of being and how yoga heals them. Stay tuned!

As always… I love you!