Yoga has become popular over the last few decades but to say it’s become mainstream wouldn’t quite be true. For some people there is still a sense of mystical implausibility about it, a suspicion that it’s in the same category as homeopathy and faith healing.
But for yoga instructor Donna Gallagher, who works at Open Universities Australia as a Marketing Manager, the “hippy-mung-bean stuff” is really only one side of yoga promoted by a certain group of yoga teachers or participants. Her experience has been nothing like that.
“[Some students] think ‘I’m suddenly going to turn into a yogi and start chanting and doing all sorts of crazy stuff’, and it’s not like that,” Donna says.
That’s not to say there isn’t a spiritual side to yoga, which is founded on the the five ‘Yamas’ that also underpin the Hindu religion. They include non-violence (to self and others), non-stealing, truthfulness, moderation, and non-attachment – or letting go.
And although you might equate the spiritual with the intangible, it is out of these Yamas – as well as the physical aspect of the exercise – that the practical benefits of yoga come.
“Yoga is about getting to know yourself better: what you’re capable of doing, and being the best person you can be,” Donna says.
Fewer desires equals less stress
Donna says that yoga has taught her stress is often caused by desiring the things we can’t have – a ridiculously expensive pair of designer shoes you see in a shop window during your lunchtime stroll is the example she uses.
“We think by having them [that] things will be so much better. Well, they really won’t. So if you can let go of the attachment to wanting those shoes, you’ll suddenly realise you feel happier and much calmer,” Donna explains.
Yoga helps you to be in the moment
Don’t have time for yoga? Actually, you’d be surprised how little time yoga takes out of your day. A proper session on a mat can be just an hour long.
But you don’t even need to think in terms of sessions, Donna says. You can consider yoga more as a state of mind than an exercise regime.
The word yoga comes from Sanskrit where it can be used to mean “union” or “connection”. In many ways it’s a union with yourself – both spiritual and physical. You have to be mindful in order to get that connection “otherwise you’re just making pretty shapes,” as Donna describes it.
Referring again to the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding yoga, Donna says, “You could be a sitting on a mat doing absolutely nothing and be a much more advanced yogi than someone who’s standing on their head.”
In fact, you don’t even need a mat or a quiet place to undertake yoga. You can do it on the escalator at your favourite department store if you really want to, “as long as you’re conscious of what’s going on internally and how you’re interacting with the world around, then you can be doing yoga.”
Yoga releases happy hormones
Still sounding a bit airy-fairy? OK, let’s get to the hard science.
More and more evidence now points to yoga increasing the levels of happy hormones in your body such as serotonin and dopamine and decreasing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
How? Partly it’s as simple as moving your body in ways you wouldn’t regularly; in other words not remaining hunched over your desk all day.
“We become trapped,” as Donna puts it, “and that’s why people have back and neck problems, because we just don’t move like we’re supposed to.”
Partly it’s about removing yourself from the world of noise and nonsense.
“That hour on your mat is just for you, and the rest of the world just disappears. You’re not concerned about all the [internal] chatter that goes on – you just let go and focus.”
Yoga helps you be a better studier
The principles of yoga can help you study.
Again, put aside the stereotype of a person on a mat in baggy pants and an ultra-flexible pose. It’s much more about the state you’re in than about particular body movements.
Donna says if you’re going to study, commit to an hour at your desk. You’ll be much more productive than you would be spending three hours sitting then wandering then getting distracted by your phone then looking for food, etc.
“If you think ‘I’ve only got an hour and I’m going to be in that zone and be mindful of how I’m studying’ then you’ll be more productive, you’ll be less stressed, and you will have the time in your day,” Donna says.
A final tip
Donna says that if you’re going to try yoga for the first time (or if you’ve tried it before and it hasn’t worked for you) she has one piece of advice above all else: learn how to breathe.
A good breathing technique can be the difference between yoga changing your life for the better and having seemingly little benefit at all. It’s also the key to the short breaks (ten minutes between study for example) and mindfulness moments that we’ve described above.
Begin by clearing your mind, then focusing on your breath. “Take deep breaths down into your belly, letting it expand and then just let it go with a big exhale. If you do that three to five times you’ll feel yourself relaxing. You can do this on the train, in the lift, or even in the shopping queue.”
For the sceptics out there Donna suggests “breathing [in this way] for 10 minutes every day for a week and just see what changes occur.”