Benefits Include

The August issue of Yoga Journal showed up yesterday (August?! It still feels like March here in Chicago!), and as usual I'm flipping through wishing I looked like the models in the photographs and not my graying, wrinkled, flabby self. I've been practicing yoga in one form or another since I was in college, starting, yes, with Richard Hittleman's 28 Day Exercise Plan, but I look nothing like the women and men who grace the pages of Yoga Journal. So, I know most of them are, like, yoga teachers and stuff, and therefore must practice hours and hours a day, but still, yoga is supposed to have all these powerful effects even if you don't do it for a career.

For example, the Home Practice feature for this month is a sequence of poses by Ana Forrest designed to help with abs. I've been doing these poses intensively once a week for the past six months or so, and, yes, they definitely help tone the abs. I'm not so sure, however, about all of the other things that Forrest says they do: "alleviate back pain, aid digestion and elimination, stimulate circulation to internal organs." Um. Well, I don't have back pain, so I can't say whether they helped with this. My digestion and elimination, again, are fairly regular. Not sure there was any change there. And how would I know whether the circulation to my internal organs had been stimulated?

But what really gets me is the list of benefits other than the physical that Forrest claims the poses will have. "Over time, says Forrest, you'll notice benefits that go beyond the physical. 'You'll feel strong, steady, centered and ready to deal with life's challenges. You'll have less anxiety, clearer thinking, and more energy. You'll feel calm and centered.'" Oh, I will, will I? Sign me up. Oh, but right, I've already been doing these poses. I must already be feeling more centered and calm and--what was that?--clear-headed and energized. Have I not been doing them right? I don't get the tail-lifts very well, and my quads have some trouble when I'm holding Horse, but I definitely feel my abs working so I must be experiencing some of these other benefits, right?

Here's the thing: how would I know? I have, after all, been doing yoga for pretty much my whole adult life. In my practice, I tend to focus on the things I've lost over the years--I used, for example, to be able to do a full Pigeon, just like the model on the cover of this month's issue, and standing up from a backbend was a piece of cake--but what about all of the things that I still can do? Forward fold, headstand, Crow, Plough: all are still easily within my reach. I'm frustrated that I've never been able to do twists very well, but the Yin Yoga I've been practicing these past few months has been helping undo some of the stiffening that fencing has given my hips and, yes, all that Forrest-work my yoga teacher has been giving us has tightened up my abs.

But these are all purely physical, indeed muscular effects. What about all of the "benefits that go beyond the physical," eh? I'm lying, of course. I know very well that I look pretty good physically; maybe not as good as the models (sigh), but certainly much better than I would if I had not been doing yoga all of these years. And if my physical self is in such (relatively) good condition, what does that suggest about my inner, spiritual self? Maybe I really am more centered and calm, ready to deal with life challenges than I would be without yoga, but, again, how would I know? I would have to live my life all over again, removing all of the things that I've done to keep in shape both physically and mentally, to be sure.

Oh, to be a recent convert and not a life-long practitioner! Maybe then the benefits would be easier to notice. Here I am, practicing always on the edge, wishing I were more flexible, wishing I could hold my concentration in my poses better (definintely something to work on), wishing I would experience that moment of bliss that so many seem to experience in their first few months of intensive practice, when I already am more flexible than I would be otherwise, when I already can concentrate for hours on end if not always in my poses, when I already have experienced those moments of bliss, way back all those years ago when I had just started going to yoga class. I want to feel like I did when I was first falling in love, but what I am experiencing is what it is like to be married and, yes, loved.

Guess what? Sometimes the benefits of such long-term practices as yoga, writing, marriage, faith are so pervasive that it's easy to take them for granted, just who you are. New converts, like newly-weds, may be full of the ecstasies of their new state, but the real benefits arguably come when one is no longer aware of them as such. I'm preaching to myself here, of course. But I thought it was something you might want to think about, too.


  1. As one approaching her 25th wedding anniversary, this strikes home. "the benefits...are so pervasive that it's easy to take them for granted." Very. And sometimes hard to see. How do you subtract that experience, so interwoven in your life and history, to see who you would have been without it? And how do you detect the point at which any practice (yoga, marriage, fencing) becomes a set of empty forms, comfortable in their familiarity, rather than a path to awakening?

  2. Ooo, ooo, I know the answer to that one! I think it's when you encounter difficulties and fail to recognize them, too, as part of the path, thinking that you should only be experiencing the benefits after all these years.


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