Aligning Mind and Body Through Yoga Practice

On the journey toward calmness and peace and living with purpose, we’ve talked about mindfulness and clearing out the mind’s cobwebs and clutter, but we haven’t touched on the importance of physical movement. Let’s not pussyfoot around this:

In order to properly care for your whole self, you must move.

I’m inspired to explore this concept by the Self-Care Retreat, a project by my friend Valerie of City|Life|Eats and Cheryl of Gluten Free Goddess. For this week’s topic of “movement,” Valerie wrote about her relationship with yoga practice. It spoke to me as yoga and I definitely haven’t always been on the same floor mat. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years, but now we’re closer than ever, and I feel better than ever.

And I don’t think that’s a coincidence.Gerace, Calabria, Italy

So let me go back and start at the beginning of our time together. I signed up for a yoga class during my senior year in college before “downward-facing dog”Β  and “namaste” became pop culture buzzwords. To be perfectly honest, I did it mostly to get an easy half a credit toward graduation, and it ended up being more of a fun diversion with friends than anything else.

My teacher was . . . unique. He was knowledgeable, kind, helpful, and never condescending, but the best part about him was his “Buddha smile,” which he encouraged us to put on in order to bring some calmness to our thoughts.

The smile thing was lost on me, though, as yoga for me at that time was all about the physical movement — the “non-exercise exercise” as Valerie puts it — perfect someone who’s not exactly wired to run 10 miles (or even one) unless being chased.

I simply wasn’t ready for the meditation or spiritual benefits just yet, but yoga didn’t mind. It still graciously offered me all the physical bonuses of the practice, such as suddenly not having weak wrists any more (thank you downward-facing dog!). Lower back pain also disappeared, largely because my teacher taught me how to *stand* properly.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Apparently most of us, when we’re just told to stand normally, lock our knees. Go ahead, stand up as if you were waiting in line somewhere, arms comfortably at your sides, not leaning on one leg or the other. If your knees are locked, you’re putting undue pressure on your lower back, so your assignment is to unlock those knees, push your shoulders back, and let your thigh muscles do more of the work.

It’s a strange and uncomfortable feeling at first, but with just a bit of practice, it becomes totally natural and second-nature — trust me, your lower back will thank you. And that’s how yoga creeps into your life.

Yoga poses make your body feel so good, it remembers them and gravitates to them whenever you need them.

Prime example: over the years, I wasn’t practicing yoga regularly, but some mornings, at breaks from the computer, and certainly in quiet corners of the law school, I found myself doing a nice standing forward bend to stretch out my lower back, the eagle pose to get the tension out of my upper back and shoulders, and figure-eight neck rotations to loosen those muscles.

Then a few years ago, I picked up Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness, which I’ve mentioned here before. In the book, Nhat Hanh writes about donning the “half smile” of Buddha in order to “relax the worry-tightened muscles in your face,” and I remembered my yoga teacher’s “Buddha Smile. Immediately things started to click. I began to realize just how many yoga principles sunk in and have stayed with me over the years — from three-part breathing to the various poses that I’d still break into whenever the mood struck, i.e., when my mind and/or body called out for them.

Since then, I’ve been much more disciplined in my practice, practicing yoga more regularly and increasingly benefiting from the calming, meditative aspects of it as well.

Now, not even a long bubble bath soothes me as much as a yoga session after a rough day.

If you’re interested in pursuing yoga, I do recommend taking a class so an experienced instructor can show you the poses and align your body the proper way so you know you’re doing them correctly; if that’s not possible, please do plenty of research on the poses so you know exactly where body parts are supposed to be — and where they’re not. And I should also throw in the standard disclaimer about checking with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.

Once you’ve got the basics down, though, yoga is a wonderful activity you can do on your own, on your own time, absolutely anywhere, even if you don’t delve too deeply into the mental benefits just yet. Believe me, I know it’s challenging to feel relaxed and at ease when you’re not even sure where your left foot goes in a given pose. But stick with it, dedicate yourself to the practice, and you will be rewarded.

If you happen to be Catholic and wonder about the intersection of Catholicism and yoga, please have a look at my friend Mary DeTurris Poust’s excellent piece on this: Stretching Toward God: Do Yoga and Catholicism Mix?

Yoga Relax App

Yoga Relax App

Yoga Stretch App

Yoga Stretch App

If you’re into iPhone/iPod apps, I can highly recommend both Yoga Relax and Yoga Stretch; I’ve made my own routines in each app and alternate between them depending on my yoga purpose on a given day. LOVE.

And finally, remember that Valerie and Cheryl are running the Self-Care Retreat all month long according to the following schedule:

July 2011 Self-Care Retreat

  • Movement – July 2
  • Reflection, meditation and mindfulness – July 9
  • Food – July 16
  • Family/friends/pets – July 23
  • Creativity – July 30

Do you practice yoga? What is your relationship with yoga like?

Please feel free to share your favorite yoga resources and links in the comments!

26 Beans of Wisdom to “Aligning Mind and Body Through Yoga Practice”
  1. 07.06.2011

    I have taken some yoga classes over the years, and do try to continue to do it every day. I like downward dog very much, lower myself into plank, go back up. What do your Italian neighbors think of you doing Yoga?

    Don’t know, Mimi — I’ve never asked them πŸ˜‰

  2. Michelle, I am thrilled you are participating, and I can relate to so much in this post. You also reminded me of a post I wrote on yoga back in 2009, which I did not link to last Saturday’s post, but am going to back and do so, as it is a reminder of how yoga can be so many different things at different points in our lives πŸ™‚

    So happy I came across your retreat — at just the right time πŸ™‚

  3. Oops, I meant to link it: – I will add it to my movement post when I get home tonight from work.

    Thanks Valerie!

  4. saretta

    I understand your attraction to movement. I, too, have discovered that the life of the mind can not stand alone without a strong body to support it.

    Ben detto, Saretta πŸ™‚

  5. 07.06.2011

    I love yoga but I want to mainly tell you how much I envy you for living in Italy. I just came back from a vacation there and I simply can’t stop thinking about it.

    Hope you’ll be able to get back soon, Nisrine!

  6. 07.06.2011

    I’ve had an on-again/off-again love affair with yoga my whole life. I was introduced to it in high school gym class– took classes in college– have practiced it for years on end… and then just sort of stopped doing it for years on end.

    I never have a specific reason why I stop the practice– nor can I explain why I start it again. I suppose there’s a very obvious reason why I behave as I do, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is.

    Maybe a bit of meditation on this issue while doing a downward facing dog would help me understand why I’m so inconsistent with my yoga practice. Certainly couldn’t hurt, could it?

    Interesting indeed, Ally; let us know if you figure anything out πŸ˜‰

  7. 07.06.2011

    Thanks so much for joining us! I think it’s beautiful that your yoga practice has been so enriching for you. I couldn’t agree more with how different teachings seem to drift in and out of our lives and click when we need them most.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, Cheryl, and also for running the retreat!

  8. Gil

    Good luck!

    Thanks Gil!

  9. 07.07.2011

    I, too, took a college yoga class–I figured I wouldn’t have to shower before running off to the Chem Lab for 3 hours. My instructor was the basketball coach. He was at least 6’6″ and we would often arrive to find him meditating upside down on his head. I was amazed at his body control! Yoga surprised me. There was a lot more toning and strengthening going on than I had ever imagined possible for such slight movements. And the benefits in improved flexibility are more valuable with each passing year. I am more of a pilates girl right now, but I can see myself moving toward yoga or tai chi in the coming years.

    I’ve been more interested in tai chi myself. Pilates is just OK for me; I definitely prefer yoga, but YES so true about the deceptive amount of strengthening and toning that is happening…love it!

  10. 07.07.2011

    Thanks! I think you have convinced me! I have been curious about yoga and its benefits for quite some time. Now I am ready to give it a try!

    Excellent, Rebecca! I hope you enjoy it as much as I do πŸ™‚

  11. 07.07.2011

    Grazie for the beautiful yoga thougths! I try to get to a yoga class at least a couple of times a week–this morning I took one in here in Hollywood that’s given outside that’s absolutely glorious. One of the best yoga experiences I’ve ever had was at Sunflower Retreats — in Casperia, north of Rome. This awesome couple (he a Casperia native, she a British yoga teacher/holistic practitioner) have taken over buildings in this medieval mountaintop town and created an extraordinary place, where you basically create your own retreat–with classes, great food, hiking, massages…it’s absolute bliss!

    So lovely, Susan; thank you for sharing!

  12. 07.09.2011

    thank you for this wonderful blog entry…i was told not to do yoga, as i am extremely flexible and might hurt myself…by accident i did one lesseon of kundalini yoga and could not stop, it kind of fixed tons of problems: my low breath, my wrong standing and and….having a self-retreat is something so needed in your excelarated every day life….but once again, thelife is so busy, that we dont have time to realise it….
    have a good weekend:-))

    Wow, I’ve never heard of being too flexible for yoga! Impressive πŸ™‚ Hope you find time for yourself, Jana πŸ™‚

  13. Kristi

    I just tried those three poses at work. I closed my door and stretched. Whoa! I feel good. I’m looking at taking some yoga classes. Just have to get some money together. I do also love Tai Chi, which helped me a great deal with my back and strengthening it again.

    Excellent Kristi! If you like Tai Chi, I think you’ll enjoy learning more about yoga as well πŸ™‚ Thanks so much for coming by!

  14. 07.14.2011

    I always *wanted* to get into yoga and it never stuck. Randomly I was offered a job at a yoga studio where it was hugely encouraged to practice as much as possible. I hate exercise…a lot…and yoga has opened up such an amazing world of UNstressful exercise!

    Im hooked. Its amazing.

    I’m hoping when I move to Italy in the next few months, I will be somewhere where I can still do group classes. Has yoga caught on there like it has in the states?

    I think it depends on which area of Italy you’re in, Angela — more in the cities, and the further north you go, I think it’s probably easier to find classes, but interestingly enough, a lot of foreigners/expats seem to be starting up yoga studios/retreats, so I have a feeling it will be all over, even in a little village like mine, in no time πŸ™‚

  15. joe baccala

    I began doing yoga 20 years ago and still try to do my sun salutations each day(not always succeeding) – if I do not, I start having pain w/ lower back, The early practice stayed: my knees for example which I notice other people in my age range (50) having trouble with…i can sit in on legs long.

    There is a nice practice, i learned on yoga dvd, for those of us who spend too much time typing or have tendonitis from clicking the rodent: get on hand and knees and place hands so your fingers are facing towards you and gently press palms on floor – I find relief w/ that one

    Also mindfulness has become de rigueur for those of us who suffer from bi-polar – it is more practical and has been shown to work better than other techniques – also it can easily be understood as rational and not attached to any particular ideology or religion. It’s more like a way from keeping one’s mind from being hijacked by repeated patterns of thinking or cognition.

    There is a Catholic Relaxation/hypnosis CD that is very good and uses breathing techniques similar to the ones you describe

    whiletheology on his web page can be heavy handed, the cd is not

    yes, I like yoga, but I won’t give up my spaghetti and meatballs

    Love it, Joe! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and this info!

  16. Intended to put in my beans of wisdom when I first read your “yoga post”, and I apologize for the lapse of time in my doing so, especially since I wanted to let you know how classy you are in giving a shout out to Mary De Turris Poust. I do not know her but from time to time I have seen Ms. De Turris Poust’s column in Catholic New York β€” but my bean is not for her β€” it is for you and your generous spirit in acknowledging others. I wrote about your practice of doing this in my June 30th blog post where I followed up on my half-year mark’s blog entries. If you’d like to read it this is the link:

    As for yoga, Michelle, I must confess I am not a fan. This is based on miserable experiences with my own “. . . unique” college yoga teacher. The breathing exercises she gave the class, and the convoluted images which accompanied them, were so stressful that I dropped the course! I know I should give it another chance, and in New York City, as you can imagine, there are a variety of opportunities to participate in yoga,. Unfortunately in general, New York City is intolerant of beginners, so, I get my exercise by walking up and down 70 stairs that lead to and from my apartment and I don’t have things β€” no matter how heavy they are β€” delivered – I bring them up the stairs, also I cycle on a tandem at least once a week; but, one of my terrace garden plants, loves yoga and it ecently did a salute to the sun as I mentioned in a post which you can find at this link.

    Thanks so much for your comment and mentions at your place, Patricia. What you say about the yoga teacher is so true, unfortunately — my mom got a bad yoga teacher apple too and for that she doesn’t enjoy it. SUCH a shame! Sounds like you move plenty though πŸ˜‰

  17. 07.30.2011

    Good afternoon Michelle, I was wondering, is there a way to receive your responses to our comments? Thank you! Happy Saturday….give the girl’s a hug from me! xx

    Hmmm I’ve been replying to them inline, so there’s no update in the comments feed that way — but I’ll be changing that. You can subscribe to the comments on a post on the RSS looking icon (last one on the right) in the “Share the love” line of icons πŸ™‚

  18. 08.02.2011

    ah well, I loved that idea about the share the love….lol! Doesn’t work…that’s okay, I’ll just check back…hugs and thank you!

  19. michelle

    Pam, that button should take you to an RSS reader page for you to subscribe; if you want to subscribe via email, I’ve just installed a plug-in that I’m going to test out now….OK, now when you leave a comment there will be a “Notify me of followup comments via email” box to check. That should work πŸ™‚

  20. 08.02.2011

    By golly, I think I’ve done it…..ha ha! Thanks Michelle! Hugs!

  21. michelle

    Happy to hear it’s working out, Pam! Thanks for making me finally put that option up πŸ™‚

  22. 08.02.2011

    ahhhhhh, anytime…! oh, and me too! xx

  23. 08.04.2011

    I love your statement that yoga is better than a bubble bath… πŸ™‚

    Just discovered your blog and love it…

    xo xo from Miami Beach, FL

    Stop by to enter my very first book giveaway…

  24. 08.21.2011

    Great post! I absolutely love yoga when I do it. But if I miss one day, I get out of the habit. I don’t get this because I do see all the benefits you are talking about and even share my love of yoga with others. I don’t actually like bubble baths, but I do greatly enjoy yoga for the relaxation and gentle movement. Tomorrow am, I’m getting back to my yoga. Thanks!


    michelle Reply:

    Same with me — when I’m in the habit, it’s awesome, but when I fall out, it takes so much to get back in. Why is that? Why must we fight it? Hee hee πŸ™‚



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