Many of us view yoga as a form of exercise. We do it because we believe it makes us stronger, more flexible, revs up our heart, and helps us become more slim and trim. And we don't do it because we believe it takes too much effort, we don't have enough time, or we think we're too old or out of shape (etc).
But yoga is much more than a system of exercise. In fact, if you think of yoga on par with running, weight lifting, playing tennis, or evening walking, you've missed a huge aspect of yoga that makes it unique, remarkable, and potentially transformative.
By nature, yoga is an integrative system that, at its core, provides a means for maintaining, healing, and restoring our bodies so they can function more efficiently and more consistently with our physical and energetic natures.
By focusing on "the whole" - on the deep and connective aspects of our bodies and minds - yoga enables healing and restoring to happen, not quickly, but overtime through practice and focus.
It also helps prevent us from succumbing to habits that arise because we live and work in a physically demanding world even when we are relatively inactive. For instance, when we hold our shoulders unnaturally forward as we do when we commute by driving our cars or work by using our computers for hours at a time, we create and perpetuate in-balances. The "holding" patterns realign the muscles in our backs and chest in a way that causes the rest of the body to have to adjust. And, overtime, these adjustments cause stress and strain frequently combined with pain and limited mobility.
Even the simplest tasks can cause long-term stress. Activities such as picking up small children using only our back muscles or carrying heavy purses and briefcases in a way that puts stress on one shoulder, or walking to avoid discomfort from an injured knee or hip creates vulnerabilities that will bite back when we least expect it. Although medical intervention may help with the symptoms (pain, etc), the underlying causes are hard to find and addressing them are often way beyond the scope of traditional medicine. And so, in many cases, the pains we experience as we move toward our forties, fifties, (and even much earlier) become associated with the inevitability of getting older rather than the truth: Our bodies natural response to misalignment and stress is more of the same as long as we mentally and emotionally disengage from our ability to repattern ourselves.
Preventing and repatterning our sources of stress - breaking the cycle of stress - is a huge part of yoga. For yoga - unlike "exercise" - enables us to rediscover our natural balance, strength and flexibility through focused and comfortable movement and rest. It engages not only our bodies but our minds and breath in a way that reinforces a reduction of physical stress and misalignment. And for many of us, this reduction not only creates an overall feeling of well-being but actually helps minimize the physical and attitudinal affects of long-term stress, dis-ease, and aging.
Ren Fields, founder of The Healing Arts and Yoga Center in Fredericksburg, VA puts it this way: "Re-patterning is the natural outcome of practicing yoga and, with it, comes dynamic healing and more energy. By re-patterning the body/mind we rearrange connective tissue, reshape musculature, increase blood flow and even reform thought patterns. We develop the habit of repeatedly unlinking from these patterns embedded in our cell memory and relinking with what is desirable, comfortable and stable."
For lots of important reasons, yoga is a whole lot more than exercise. It's a powerful means for rediscovering one's body, engaging one's mind, and enjoying life from the inside out regardless of age, fitness, or previous experience. Please tell your friends!