On the surface, yoga seems to be a physical exercise, a way to get stronger and stretchier. When I first started yoga back in 1999, that's all I thought it was. And while it's true - I have become stronger and stretchier from almost 20 years of yoga - these are only small benefits. Even when I was beginning, I was perplexed by how much yoga helped me relax. (This was no small feat, as I was so anxious that doctors gave me medicine.) How could some exercise, with a short rest at the end, relax me so much?
Fortunately, I stuck with yoga long enough to find out. If I said that yoga has invisible effects, you might not believe me. I wouldn't have believed me, either. But I have felt these effects often enough to know that it's true: each of us has an "energy body," known in Sanskrit as the pranamaya kosha, that determines much of our experience. The pranamaya kosha can get blocked by lots of things, such as unprocessed emotions, negative people, a sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy foods, alcohol, etc. etc. These unseen blocks can cause anxiety as we unknowingly push against them as we try to live our life. However, yogic exercises of stretching, movement, and intentional breathing clear the blocks in our energy body so that the energy can move uninhibited. We then feel more relaxed, similar to how a ride on a smooth road is more pleasant than a bumpy one.
This clearing can be revolutionary. Not only do we have more energy and fewer worries, but our priorities begin to shift. Life in a body becomes more enjoyable, with flowing energy and flexible joints, and so we rely less on outside things - such as new devices or the approval of others - for our happiness. We find natural bliss within ourselves.
Another invisible effect of yoga is how it tames the ego, moving our focus away from the wants and needs of our little self and towards the collective good. This process also involves the energy body. By paying close attention to the pranamaya kosha during a yoga practice, feeling how our energy is moving or stuck, we start to notice how the people around us affect our energy. Maybe we aren't as separate from others as we thought! So if we can help others be happy, we make the environment nicer for ourselves. Even if this is a mildly-selfish reason for helping, it's a start. Besides, doing yoga's backbends and twists release energy blocks at the heart center, which naturally makes us more loving and giving, even without a payoff. (See below for a short exercise for this.)
One of the best techniques for releasing ego and increasing our capacity to love is by doing service for others, known as "karma yoga." It's a challenge, as true karma yoga is giving selflessly, without attachment to the results; balancing on one toe with the other leg behind the head might be easier.
But yoga means showing up and giving it a try. A year and a half ago, I stayed in an ashram and did karma yoga in exchange for room and board, where I scrubbed toilets and dug rocks out of hard earth as a crash course in releasing ego through service. (You can read about that experience by clicking here.)
Now, I'm off to volunteer for the Sat Nam Foundation, where I'll be working side by side with my fellow yogis at a five-day Kundalini yoga festival, connecting with others while saving the festival promoters money that can go to Sat Nam's projects.
Reading about the work sponsored by Sat Nam Foundation humbles me. They have built dorms for Indian orphans, saved Syrian refugees off the Greek coast, and provided aid for Nepali earthquake victims. Currently, they are getting teens offline and into the woods, and building a sustainable food network for First Nation people on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, which has a shameful lack of resources. (There is ONE grocery store on the res of 40,000 people!) To support their work, please click here.
Sat Nam means "I bow to the Truth." And the truth is, we are all connected - the privileged, the refugees, the orphans, those who are suffering and those who are satisfied. The practice of yoga, by making us happy in our own bodies, helps us feel this Truth; more importantly, it gives us the strength and motivation to act on it.
Quick & Easy Heart-Opening Exercise
Want to clear the energy around the heart? Me too! Let's get started:
Sit comfortably. You can do this exercise on the floor; you can do it in a chair; you can do it on a train; you can do it on a plane. (Well, maybe not a plane - unless you get a row to yourself.)
Take your arms out to the sides and bring your hands to your shoulders. Fingers in front of the shoulders, thumbs in back. Elbows are lifted up so that they are level with the shoulders.
Inhale and twist from the waist to the left, then exhale and twist to the right. Move smoothly and continuously, twisting from side to side. Keep the elbows lifted!
Do this exercise with a timer, such as the one found on your cell phone. Go for at least two minutes - or even 1 minute to start - and work your way up to 3 minutes. This exercise opens up the heart energy center. When you're finished, sit still for as long as you can and feel the effects.
Now get up and do something nice for someone!