A few months ago, I stumbled across a local museum website announcement for a new offering of a free 50-minute weekly yoga class. To circumvent the sedentary aspect of being a writer, I thought that’s perfect. I can totally try that out.
With no expectations beyond a little stretch here-and-there, I arrived on the first day of class as I usually do before I attend a new event…five minutes before start time without having done much research. I had no idea what type of yoga would be taught, the best clothing to wear, or if I would need any gear. It seemed like a great opportunity to try something new and again, it was free, so I just showed up.
With a cheerful and pleasant disposition, the instructor, Jennifer Winther, brought energy to start of the class that made it personable and highly welcoming. She stated we would begin on the mat. The last time I sat down on my faded yoga mat was 16 years ago at a pre-natal yoga class before the birth of my daughter. That class was pretty easy.
Why would this one be any different?
20 minutes into the class, after remaining in Plank pose for a full three seconds and convincing myself Downward-Facing Dog would absolutely be the end of me, I felt like I was near death.
Sweat ran down my forehead so profusely I could barely see the instructor when she demonstrated what I was supposed to do. Six times I had to grab a corner of my t-shirt to wipe the sweat (and sting) from my eyes. I couldn’t tell how everyone else felt, but my legs felt limp, like they no longer wanted to support my weight. A public collapse seemed imminent.
“Reach as far as you can…open your chest…heart up, straighten your right leg…” she said. I tried to reach but my arms no longer wanted to reach for anything!
Finally, 45 minutes later, near the end of class, I lie on my mat flat on my back and tried to suppress my laborious breathing and nausea as thoughts raced through my mind.
Never again! WHO is this class for?! I had no idea the left side of my body was so weak. What the hell was I thinking? Damn, I’m out of shape! Did anybody see my tank top roll up?? THANK GOODNESS IT’S OVER!
Everything ached after class and continued to ache days later. However, despite soreness and complete ambivalence, something in me knew the first class wouldn’t be my last.
As a human being alive in the world, of course, I was familiar with the general concept of yoga and passingly heard of the benefits. However, as a novice, I lacked real understanding of the deeply rooted changes this ancient practice of challenging postures, breathing and meditative techniques would yield in my life.
Several weeks into the class, yoga had introduced me to muscles I didn’t know existed. Joint stiffness and pain in my left hip began to decrease and I felt physically and mentally stronger, calmer and more grounded in my body.
However, beyond what I noticed on a topical level, it was clear something else was happening. I felt as if a multi-layered healing and release was occurring as a result of the consistent practice and I began to wonder the following:
What really happens to you and your body during yoga?
So, I reached out to my instructor.
Jennifer Winther, Ph.D., E-RYT 500, is a writer, meditator, and Los Angeles based certified yoga instructor who leads teacher training, retreats, workshops and classes.
Here is our conversation on how yoga is way more than asanas.
BJB: What is the main purpose of yoga?
JW: I have to preface my response according to who I am. If I’m anything, I’m anti-orthodox.
I lead teacher training and teach people about what yoga is, but I always approach it as “if someone is going to tell you this is the only thing that yoga is or this is the only way to do authentic yoga,” run as far as you can in the opposite direction.
Yoga is a lifelong practice of awareness; a practice of self-study and a journey that can be treated as the path to enlightenment.
“The birth of yoga originally comes from the Vedas (ancient Hindu scriptures), which dates back between 4,000 to 5,000 years. Vedic knowledge was passed down from teacher to student through perfect memorization in the way of verses and poems. But it wasn’t until the second century B.C. that a sage named Patanjali outlined what is known today as the Eight Limbs of Yoga.”
JW: Patanjali may have been one person, but perhaps not. He is recognized as the author of the Yoga Sutras, a classical yoga text on theory and philosophy.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga is part of the Yoga Sutras, and asana (physical postures) is only one of the Eight Limbs. Traditionally, the First and Second Limbs of self-study and lifestyle change are finished before starting a rigorous physical practice. You clean yourself, the mind and body, from the inside out and get yourself ready to do yoga asana which then gets the heart, the mind and the body ready to sit — to meditate with the end goal being enlightenment (the Eighth Limb).
Here’s a brief overview of each of the Eight Limbs:
The Yamas are rules of moral code and include ahimsa (non-violence or non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (conserving lifeforce), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
The Niyamas are rules of personal behavior including saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (discipline or austerity), svadhyaya (spiritual studies), and Ishvara Pranidhana (constant devotion to God).
Asana refers to yoga postures but in Patanjali’s initial practice, it referred to mastering the body to sit still for meditation.
Pranayama are yoga breathing techniques designed to control prana or vital life force.
Pratyahara means a withdrawal of the senses.
Dharana refers to concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness.
Dhyana is the practice of meditation.
Samadhi is merging with the Divine.
BJB: What is the definition of the word ‘yoga’?
JW: The definition of the word ‘yoga’ is ‘to yoke’ — to bring together the mind, body, the world and Source.
At the essence there is a Divine element, illusions of the world and a practice that helps you bring the two closer together; whether it’s in a straight line or all at once. Different schools of yoga would say the lifelong practice is a constant shift of back-and-forth and bringing awareness to your Divine Self; not moving toward your Divine Self, but bringing awareness of your Divine Self into the world. A dualistic world view is one where the Divine Self is separate, and practice is then goal oriented toward enlightenment. A non-dualistic view is where the Divine and mundane are part of a whole and the goal is to inhabit, be aware of, manifest, both, here in our earthly life.
The way yoga is taught now, in most teacher training and classes, is primarily asana, with some meditation, but not as much philosophy. We practice only a couple of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs here in class.
Many teachers have found the value of the teachings in their own life and try to teach it in a classroom, but there’s only so much you can do in an hour. I think the way yoga is practiced now fits well in the west because we’re goal oriented. This approach is slightly problematic, but I think it can work if you’re moving towards going within to bring awareness of (non-religious) divinity into your life.
BJB: How did yoga come into your life?
JW: I practiced martial arts for over ten years. I was this close to becoming a Black Belt. I enjoyed it a great deal and then I got pregnant. I trained up until the week before my son was born and even after he was born. However, as a senior student you’re expected to assist, teach and be a bigger part of the community. As a new mother, I only had one or two hours per week to train and I really needed them to be just for me, not assisting or helping others.
After some time, I wanted activity, but I couldn’t go back to sparring while breastfeeding.
For years a friend had said, “Come to a yoga class.” I had no interest whatsoever.
Then, I attended a Mommy & Me class.
I took my infant son to class and was introduced to yoga. The teacher was lovely. It was a beautiful class and sometime later I started to want a class by myself. My interest in yoga continued to build until we moved and a yoga studio was within walking distance to my house. I could do what I needed to do for my family and then walk to my yoga class.
It was a game changer and soon I was there five days per week.
BJB: What style of yoga do you teach?
JW: A few.
I mostly teach a Vinyasa Flow Yoga, an American hybrid version of what comes from Ashtanga Yoga, but also a mix of Hatha, Iyengar, Vinyasa, and Power Yoga (empowerment from the inside to balance things out through a progressive sequence of poses). I also teach Yin Yoga, which is mostly seated postures focusing on joints, mayo facial release, stress release, and stretching. I’ve been practicing yoga for 15 years and teaching for six.
BJB: What happens to the joints, organs and internal bodily functions when you practice yoga?
One of the reasons I’m so in love with yoga is that it’s a full-body practice.
Motion is lotion.
If you’re bringing awareness into how you’re moving your body and Vinyasa, how you are placing your body, a door is opening to the inner body for internal balance and recalibration.
Physicality is the first layer of bringing things back “on line” so your body can internally communicate with itself. Because your physical body is part of the wholeness of your emotional, mental and spiritual body, if you think in layers, it’s all working together and focusing on breath and awareness to funnel energy into one place to get all parts working together on the inside.
No matter how you configure your body, it has a purpose.
Once you move the body around to get circulation going in a very specific way, the yoga postures work in a very specific way.
The question is: how can your yoga practice get you into the deep layers beyond just a flow?
A regular practice provides the space where all these things can happen for an hour a day. The vehicle is the pose and the breath. If you can get to the deeper places, it’s a remarkably powerful practice.
BJB: What role does yoga play as a steppingstone to mental flexibility, perseverance, and a willingness to try new things?
JW: When you come into a yoga class, you’re going to be either tight and strong, or tight and weak, flexible and weak or flexible with little body awareness.
There are deeper muscles that you never use, and yoga asks you to use them.
Yoga gets you into every single muscle and every single joint to bring breath, awareness, willingness, openness and flexibility to all these different places. Some poses require years of practice to do safely and require the willingness to see where your strengths and weaknesses are.
A yogi’s commitment to a regular practice over time is inherently one of metal flexibility, perseverance, and willingness to grow.
The idea is to keep showing up. And that is always enough.
BJB: What has been the most surprising or unexpected part of the role yoga has had in your life?
JW: I’m not sure if this is the most surprising, but I will say when I was in teacher training, I had no intention of teaching. I loved my teacher and I wanted to go deeper into my practice. During that three months process, a part of me, specifically the professor in me, came back to life.
When I left teaching at the university, I closed the door on that part of my life. And in deepening my yoga practice, this part of me that I thought was dead and gone was alive again. That was very surprising to me. Even though I didn’t become a professor after getting my Ph.D., this long and winding road has led me here — to bring all these parts of me alive — to teach yoga.
BJB: How do you feel when you’re doing yoga?
JW: That is a great question and something I struggle with. I have injuries and my experience is very much the norm even though we don’t talk about it.
If you start yoga in your 20’s, for example, it is Power Yoga all the way. You go into every crazy pose, every Chaturanga, you never skip it. You sweat, you breath and do a lot of physical things with your body.
Then you get into your 30’s. Injury, injury, injury.
I went too far. And this is normal in the yoga community. As you get driven by the physical outcome in your practice, most people injure themselves because they’re putting too much pressure on their shoulders or back. Like any heavy athletic practice, you can go too far. I started in my 30’s and I went hard. It was fun! But I’d probably do a few things differently so I didn’t have this shoulder injury.
I can’t do a Vinyasa class all the time. I work more therapeutically now. Since I’m no longer in class five days a week I’ve gained weight. That’s been really hard for me. It’s hard for any woman to have body weight fluctuations through pregnancy, after pregnancy, through breast cancer, for me, and afterwards through strong yoga and aging. It’s a struggle to feel good in my body in a yoga pose when I don’t feel good in my body outside of a yoga pose. So, it’s more of the inner work and reminding myself I don’t have to be a supermodel to feel good.
It’s a constant and challenging practice because I don’t have the strength, trimness and physical fitness I had in the past. I’m forced, like everyone who ages, to keep the practice alive mentally, emotionally and spiritually and not give up on the physical part because my body has changed.
Now when I’m doing yoga, I feel awesome and at other times, completely frustrated, but that would happen whether I gained weight or not.
However, with this body, these injuries and the baggage of what I should or want to look like, is different than how I feel when I’m teaching yoga.
Recently, I taught a small intimate class with some people I didn’t know, but they had great energy. It turned out to be a fabulously beautiful class. I walked out grinning from ear-to-ear.
We can walk into a class with a whole lot going on, but when we — me and the students — walk out, I’ve done the rinsing too.
There’s nothing that beats feeling that shift after teaching a class.
And in the end when it’s all said and done, I have to remember the following:
An advanced Yogi is not the person who can do the pretzel pose or be on their hands for five minutes and do all the fancy poses. An advanced Yogi is one whose life has changed because their practice goes beyond the mat.
My life has changed as a result of yoga. And for that I am forever grateful.
Yoga has gotten into “every single muscle and every single joint to bring breath, awareness, willingness, openness and flexibility” to my body, my mind and my life.
Now, six months later, I can definitely say I see what really happens during yoga:
With deep breathing, asanas, a willingness to keep going — to realize potential — despite the difficulties and discomfort, and beyond physical benefits, yoga opens a door for internal shifts, awakenings, and all aspects of health to merge to be an expression of love in form.
Yoga encourages the showing up, not just on the mat but also in life.
With continued practice there is growth and the opportunity to be present to who you are now while becoming who you are meant to be; to honor the Divine in you by connecting to what is truthful, strengthening, healing and awake in your life, your body and the world around you.