A recent study published by the University of Southampton in the UK has put forth a relatively contentious finding: yoga makes you more self-absorbed and, inadvertently, inflates the ego in the process.
Yet, as we mark the fourth International Day of Yoga on June 21, there are countless stories that go beyond the headlines and the case studies, far outweighing the subliminal pretexts of the ego and the ID to highlight its very tangible benefits.
“When I lost my mother, it [yoga] was the one place I cried when I was trying my best to hold it together. I was working as a journalist and having to put a brave face on all the time, but on the yoga mat, I could truly allow the stuff underneath to surface,” says Melanie Swan, a Dubai-based teacher who’s been practicing yoga for 11 years. “Yoga isn’t a workout, it’s an internal, spiritual practice. It is a way of us connecting inside, which we don’t do often enough.
“Our yoga mat is like a mirror. That’s where we see our true selves — the self which is lazy, the self which is in need of emotional support, the self which is being too hard on ourselves, the egoistic self, it all comes out on the mat.”
“I also find it helps me to be kinder with myself,” says freelance writer and author Andrea Anastasiou, who’s been practicing yoga ‘on and off for 10 years’.
“Most of us are guilty of self-criticism, whether that be of our bodies or other aspects of our lives. When I witness the progress I’m making in yoga and all the incredible things my body is able to do, I find myself slowly but surely becoming so much kinder with it,” she says. “Society puts so much emphasis on physical perfection now that we seem to forget how amazing our bodies are to be able to do the things that they do for us.”
For Natasha Rudatsenjo, the call of yoga was so life altering that she decided to give up her career in events and marketing and launched her own company, Dryp yoga studio.
“I suffered from an unhealthy, under active thyroid and tried all sorts of detoxes and took medications for years trying to fix myself,” recalls Rudatsenjo. “Finally, someone mentioned yoga to me and I decided to give it a go. I loved my first class so much that three months later, I was in San Diego training to become a professional.”
Anastasiou calls yoga ‘very introspective’, opening the gateway for her to connect with her emotions.
“You’re forced to be with yourself for that hour… and really pay attention to every movement you make with your body, as well as every breath that you take,” she explains. “This focus on the breath is what helps you during your practice, and so you find yourself become more aware of it throughout the day, too. So, if you are stressed out or feeling anxious, you can bring your awareness back to your breath and feel more grounded. Yoga helps me to be more mindful off the mat, which in turn makes me feel calmer all day.”
As a PR Consultant by day and a yoga enthusiast by night, Nerry Toledo knows all about stress, admitting that she has developed a love-hate relationship with yoga since she started practicing in 2014.
“I always think that everything comes to us at the right moment, and when we are ready for it. I never thought that I would be practicing yoga or become a yoga teacher,” Toledo explains. “My yogic practice was born from a deep whisper from within. I was trying to help a friend who was experiencing anxiety. I searched every possible solution and found a YouTube video about yoga for anxiety. Next thing I knew, I found myself enrolled in my first 200-hour teacher training.”
Toledo feels everyone practices yoga to find answers that have yet to be found.
“The more I practice, the more I find out about my life’s purpose. It’s a journey inside myself seeking for truth about who I am and why I am here,” she says. “Yoga is never an only physical practice to me. It’s a spiritual journey, first and foremost.
“If you come to the yoga practice with goals to lose weight and do a solid handstand, then it will only take you to the most superficial level of the practice. If you practice for the health benefits, then you will certainly feel better, but even this is not the true depth within the context of yoga. In order to really get the deepest benefit from the practice, you have to set your intention on the spiritual journey of yoga.”
“Yoga has transformed my life in many physical and mental ways. It has taught me things from compassion and patience to trust and faith, it has taught me to listen to my body and tuning in to my inner voice,” reveals Swan.
“Physically, as I also do so much else beyond the physical practice, I can’t attribute something so physical to the practice, but no doubt, since practicing yoga I’m a better human being and a mentally healthier human being.
“Yoga teaches us to be mindful, of not doing too little or too much, of not eating too little or too much, of making good, ethical choices in life, amongst many other things, and these are facets which go way beyond the yoga mat.”
Dubai resident Manju Nagpal talks of her father, S.R. Sachdeva’s improved health ever since he transformed his life with daily yoga, nearly 20 years ago.
“My father, who is 76 years old now, suffered a health scare a little over 20 years ago. His blood pressure was through the roof, his diabetes was not under control and he was suffering with cardiovascular issues,” recalls Nagpal. “Of the many life changes he underwent, physical exercise had to become a large part of his daily existence; this is when yoga came into his life.”
According to Nagpal, her father’s daily routine over the two decades includes 30 minutes of Pranayama (controlled breathing), with another 15 minutes of Kapalbhaati (yogic breathing practice), which is believed to energise the nervous and circulatory systems, improve metabolism, detoxify the body and cleanse internal organs.
“Of course, my father has also transformed his diet as well, but we can’t deny that his diabetes is now under control and his energy levels are fit enough to keep up with my five-year-old,” she adds. “In fact, even when we all go on vacation, my father gets my younger one to practice yoga with him.”
While Nagpal is unable to find time in her daily routine to fit in yoga herself, Anastasiou says it’s important to choose a form of yoga that a person can enjoy.
“If I were a first timer again, I’d take a monthly pass at a studio that has a variety of types of yoga to choose from and try them all out,” says Anastasiou, who recommends fitting in 10 minutes of Surya Namaskar or sun salutations into your daily routine.
“They’re the basis of most types of yoga, and they’re the easiest to perform at home without instruction. It’s a great way to start the day, too, as it helps you to wake up, stretch, meditate, and warm up a little,” she explains.
Dryp yoga’s Rudatsenjo recommends meditation as the perfect way to face the day.
“There is so much material online, on YouTube that you don’t need to go anywhere to learn. Just sit in silence and focus on your breathing.”
Give your health a twist
Yoga practitioner Nerry Toledo recommends 10 minutes of the Supta Matsyendrasana or the Supine Spinal Twist to make a difference to your body and well-being.
“This pose can be done every single day, with anyone, no matter what level you are at your practice. It will decompress your back and lengthen your hamstrings and hip external rotators,” she says. “It also strengthens your abdominals and back while stretching the chest. It massages the abdominal tissues, detoxifies internal organs calms the mind and relaxes the body. This pose also relieves lower back pain, opens the shoulders, and elongates the spine.”
• Begin lying on the ground
• On an exhalation, draw both knees to your chest and clasp your hands around them for a knee-to-chest pose (Apanasana).
• Extend your left leg along the floor, keeping your right knee drawn to your chest. Extend your right arm out along the floor at shoulder-height with your palm facing down.
• Take your left hand to your outer right thigh. Exhaling drop your right knee over the left side of your body. Keep your left hand resting gently on your right knee.
• Turn your head to the right. Soften your gaze toward your right fingertips. Keep your shoulder blades pressing toward the floor and away from your ears. Allow the force of gravity to drop your knee even closer to the floor. If your right toes can touch the floor, allow your foot to rest.
• Hold the pose for 10-25 breaths. On an inhalation, slowly come back to the centre, back to a knees-to-chest pose.
• Exhale, and extend your right leg along the floor. Repeat steps 3-6 on the opposite side.
• When you’re finished with the pose, hug your knees to your chest for a few breaths. Slowly exhale as you extend both legs along the floor.