How yoga teaches us to respect our body (where other exercise programmes might not)

If you google ‘top fitness videos’ you will probably read titles like this:

  • full body hit!
  • burn belly fat!
  • hardcore HIIT workout!
  • the killer workout which torches calories!

What do you notice about these titles?

We see the language of combat, punishment, domination, mastery.

It is as if we are at war with our own bodies.

I came to fitness classes in my late teens, discovering that whilst I had hated school PE, I did like aerobics and step classes. I wanted to improve my cardiovascular fitness, and maybe tone up a bit too.

The music was loud, and the instructor was louder. The language being yelled at us was very similar to the titles of fitness videos we still see today. We needed to work HARDER! FASTER! We weren’t to give up!

I was taming my errant body, trying to shrink it, trying to make it more acceptable (to me, as much as anyone else).

About five years later I discovered yoga.

It was not instant attraction. I am not a naturally flexible person. But SPOILER ALERT! You don’t have to be!

From the first few classes I felt in my bones that this was a profound act of self-love and appreciation for my body and my mind. The postures were unfamiliar, challenging, sometimes a bit weird…

And yet I left each class feeling… lighter, more open, more spacious, stable, energised, intrigued, curious… at peace with my body.

The way that the teacher talked about the body in a yoga class was completely different to those fitness classes I had attended before.

We ‘cradled’ our shin. We ‘allowed’ our bellies to ‘soften’. We ‘explored’ and ‘observed’ the gentle undulations of breath across our whole body.

We weren’t doing this for any particular goal. At least, not the narrow, short-term goals I was used to. We were just right here, right now, finding out about our bodies. Where the goals of fitness classes tend to be focused on specific body parts, yoga seemed to be about integrating the whole body, linking the breath with movement, feeling from the inside out.

We were encouraged to feel our brightness, our vitality, our wonderful, wild aliveness!

It was the language of appreciation. Of love. Of deep respect.

And this appreciation just went on and on. There was no end point. it just kept on getting more freaking amazing!

Yes, there might have been the frustration of tight hamstrings or glutes. But I learnt that ‘we can stay with it’, and ‘meet it’ with gentle compassion. A good teacher will find meaningful cues, give options and use props. They are there to support our exploration.

We learn through yoga asana that our body will learn to trust us if we do not push it too far, too fast. If we ask it politely, by coming in and out of postures a few times, the body learns that there is an exit route. We can go to 50% or 70% of our maximum range of motion, and then our bodies might relax into giving us 10% more without us even trying.

We learn to balance the needs of different parts of our body. Rather than ‘target’ specific parts, we are feeling the connection between them. The different parts of our body are in this together. The feet support the knees support the hips support the pelvis support the spine support the shoulder support the arms. The body and the breath are interwoven: when the breath becomes ragged, it is time to back off, ease up, balance things out.

We can use a brick or a strap to support parts of our body. When there is greater ease in one part of the body, the rest of our body will respond with openness. We can provide support and alignment in the bent knee by making sure it is directly over our ankle. We can lift our toes to stop the knee rolling inwards. We can find stability in the pelvis by pulling the navel to the spine, and we might find that the shoulder girdle becomes more open. We have space across the chest and can take deep breaths into the lungs.

This is cued with language that is respectful of our body. We are ‘invited’ to press our weight through the outside edge of our back foot. We can ‘explore’ bending more deeply into the knee to ‘see how this feels’. We are encouraged to ‘tune in’ to what our body knees on this day, at this time. We have the ‘option’ to go deeper, or to keep it light for today.

It is subtle, but it is profound.

These cues foster trust and curiosity. No one else in the room can ‘feel a line of energy’ or ‘find the edge of sensation’. There is no expert teacher who claims to know what’s good for your body. Only you can tap into your inner knowing.

This is the most profound physical effect of yoga. Yes, yoga builds flexibility, stability, strength, stamina, ease of movement, balance, flow. Yes yoga makes us more aware of breath, and its fundamental influence on our minds and our moods.

Most importantly, yoga asana builds body confidence. We gradually learn that the body knows. The body knows.

We don’t need to kick our own ass. We don’t need to target or trim isolated parts of our bodies. We don’t need to chase a dream of six-pack abs or tight glutes. Once we tune in, we can listen to where we might make more space for our lungs. Where a tiny adjustment can create openness in the hips, or length in the hamstrings. The postures unfold for us, changing and evolving, becoming ever more interesting.

We are whole, we are integrated, we are miraculous.

So let’s start exploring…

Ali teaches a weekly yoga class on Wednesday evenings at 7pm at Staplehurst Village Centre, in Kent.

She can also be booked for private tuition.

All bodies are welcome!