Americans are obsessed with numbers. Heart rate, calories consumed, pounds on a scale, grams of carbohydrates — it seems every aspect of our lives is reduced to a quantified input in hopes of a more desired, measurable result.
This phenomenon may explain Americans’ approach to yoga, an Eastern practice emphasizing the mind body connection. In the U.S., however, it is often used as a means to improve one’s physique with gains of tight abs, strong legs and a shapely backside.
Marla Pelletier, owner of Inward Office, a mobile studio that brings yoga classes as well as meditation and mindfulness training sessions to the workplace, says that is too bad. She explains that some of yoga’s greatest benefits are off the mat, outside of the hour in the studio.
“I think Americans are used to seeing yoga as an exercise class,” Pelletier says.
Pelletier, a highly credentialed and experienced yoga instructor since 2006, integrates breathing, relaxation and mindfulness into her yoga classes. “Going in through the body,” as she puts it, benefits a person well beyond their time on the yoga mat. In doing so, she has seen her students, ranging from corporate professionals to trained combat soldiers, realize there is a part of the body has been neglected. This is the part that controls the body’s ability to relax, let go and surrender.
A full mind?
An office environment can be filled with uncertainty. Changes within departments, moving to a new office, mergers, and professional relationships — all of these and more can cause anxiety and stress. This in turn, affects your heart rate, blood pressure and ability to think clearly.
“Our bodies are tuned to have a physiologic response to a physical threat,” Pelletier says. “This is the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism. In some situations it can be helpful to shut down digestion and increase adrenaline. It’s great if you’re about to mugged. But for a negative performance review? Not so much.”
Your stress responses may also be triggered by events outside your work environment. Taking care of a sick parent. Raising kids. Unless you break the chronic stress pattern it will affect your health negatively over time. In addition, it can be difficult to pull yourself out of the negative feedback cycle if you're already burdened by a condition that contributes to chronic stress.
In contrast to a full mind, the practice of mindfulness is about bringing your attention to the experience of the present moment. You become a neutral observer to your thoughts and feelings. Think of awareness without the judgement.
When paired with stress management, cultivating mindfulness becomes a powerful tool.
“Some yogis can control their heart rate and are able to manipulate the nervous system in ways we cannot imagine,” Pelletier says. “But mindfulness is something we cultivate when practicing yoga. It’s an awareness practice. It’s a process of learning how to pay attention to what our bodies are telling us.”
Clenched jaws, sweaty palms, a slouched postured — these are all signals of stress, discomfort and anxiety that we often carry with us. Many of us have had these symptoms for so long we don’t even recognize them anymore.
From Mat to Mellow
During Pelletier’s classes, students focus on the signals their bodies send during a specific pose or asana. Where you might feel pain or tightness for example. During a pose, she offers suggestions on how a student can focus and relax the body into comfort during an asana (posture).
“This is where awareness starts to build,” Pelletier. “Our physical symptoms unveil what’s going on with our mental state. And then we can control it.”
There is a trickle down affect of daily activities off the mat including better stress management, mindfulness and mental check-ins to the body. You have to develop subtle attention to the little messages. Only then can you know to relax your jaw, breathe deeply and slowly or straighten your posture, for instance.
“Physical and mental aches and pains are part of life,” Pelletier says. “Yoga teaches you to not be defined by your discomfort but to let it go.”