It is wonderful that approximately 20 million Americans are now doing yoga. And it is fantastic that we have countless varieties and styles of yoga — something for everyone.
I find, however, that in many communities there is a shortage of body-friendly, gentle yoga classes. Many folks — especially middle aged and up, or those who are recovering from injuries — are intimated by yoga or don’t return after a bad yoga experience.
I have been teaching yoga for 15 years in Everett, Washington, and my most consistently popular class is my gentle “Over 50s” yoga class. People know they will not have to be surrounded by young pretzels.
Yogis talk about three stages of life; our younger years as the sunrise time, our middle years as the mid-day and our elder years as the sunset time. Our practice ideally matches our age, with less physical focus in our later years.
I asked T.K.V. Desikachar, the son of Sri Krishnamacharya, if we in the West are too asana-focused. His eyes lit up and he said (I paraphrase), “Oh yes! By the time one is 50 or 60, you should be doing 40 percent meditation, 40 percent pranayama and only 20 percent asana.”
Yet gentle yoga is not only for those in their later years. I find that everyone feels good and present after a gentle, breath-connected, meditative yoga class. Presence is the goal! Presence is what yoga — to yoke or bring together into oneness — is all about. Sometimes I feel the true power of yoga is that which connects us with our breath and body, slows us down, grounds us, helps us feel our fears and other feelings and align with the Divine.
We in the West often choose yoga styles that feel familiar, which continues the same patterns and imbalances: speed, force, no-pain-no-gain, excess yang and heat, etc. Many of us can benefit from grounding, slowing down, feeling and breathing consciously.
Of course, we may all have unique goals with our yoga, but the traditional goals of yoga are to awaken us and alleviate our suffering. You might ask yourself if the style of yoga you are doing is truly helping you or not.
Here are seven reasons why gentle yoga may help you:
- Slow is good: Gandhi said: “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” Learn the key lesson of less is more, by slowing down. Slowness gives us time to really feel, experience and be present in the pose — and in our life. Furthermore, when we move slowly, we have time to extend the breath and expand the respiratory capacity, a wonderful physiological benefit.
- Feel: By moving slowly, connected with the breath, there is also a wonderful psycho-emotional benefit. Deep breathing means deep feeling, and feeling is healing. Sometimes I wonder if we choose fast moving yoga or strong exercise because we are actually trying to out run our emotions. Slow, gentle yoga can help calm the mind and give us time and space to be with and breathe into our buried backlog of emotions.
- Connect with your breath: As yoga teachers, this to me is the most important gift we can offer our students. Breath is a bridge between the two worlds: spiritual unmanifest and material manifest. In many languages, the word breath is translated as spirit. So when we connect movement with breath awareness, we connect body and spirit. When we connect with our Divine essence — that which you are — we discover the peace.
- Presence: Gentle yoga helps us be fully in the moment rather than constantly trying to get somewhere. By moving slowly and connecting movement with breath, we help bring people into the present moment — the key to all transformation. Rumi said: “No matter how fast you run, your shadow more than keeps up. Sometimes it’s in front! Only full, overhead sun diminishes your shadow.” We are the sun. Shadows cannot survive in the light of our own conscious presence and awareness.
- Connect with your body: If we are moving fast or struggling or, worse yet, doing yoga from an egotistical perspective; are we really listening to the true needs and desires of the body? Our bodies want us in them! They want us present, paying attention. Gentle yoga can help you love the body, hear it and have it regain trust in you.
- Ahimsa: Nonviolence is perhaps the most essential of the yamas, and arguably trumps or includes all the other four yamas. A main goal of yoga is to reduce suffering. Due to our disconnected, no-pain-no-gain philosophy, injuries in yoga classes are not uncommon. With gentle yoga, we spend less time recovering from injuries, and more time on the mat and enjoying life. We become more patient, present and kind.
- Balance Masculine and Feminine energies: At this time of tremendous shift on earth, our world at long last is balancing the masculine and feminine energies. I suspect that the majority of us are imbalanced towards the masculine energy, which has been excessive on earth arguably for thousands of years. Perhaps this is why yin yoga is starting to become popular. We are beginning to see the value in grounding, embodiment, slowness, yielding and surrendering to the flow of life.
Finally, let me say that many of these benefits can be achieved in most any style of yoga, if the practitioner is willing to be present, honest and honor their body, truth and limits. We should ask ourselves: what is our goal with yoga? Are my goals and practice ego-and-mind driven or heart driven?
Many of us can get much more out of a gentle yoga practice than we realize, with less pain, suffering and injury. Less is often more. Slow is good. Gentle, breath-connected yoga is profound and powerful.
[Photo by Augusto Mia Battaglia – CC BY]
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