27 May 2014

Do you smile when you're practicing yoga?

As a yoga instructor at both a studio and a gym, I teach many students who are brand new to yoga. It's not uncommon for me to have one or more people in my class who have never done yoga before, and are feeling a little uncertain about their decision to try it.

One of the things I emphasize in my classes, beyond encouraging students to tune into the wisdom of their bodies, in addition to asking them to really pay attention to their breathing, and above asking them to (try to) stay out of their ego by only going as far as their body and their breath guide them, is to SMILE!

Most students love this, I believe because there are many things in life--family, work, school, etc.--that we all take so seriously. So when students come to my class and I encourage them to relax, strengthen, and stretch their bodies by being PLAYFUL and having some fun, the relief is almost palpable. (Balancing poses in particular are great opportunities for smiles and laughs!)

On the first yoga DVD I ever had, Baron Baptitse said (at a particularly challenging point in the class): "lift the inner corners of the lips". I often find myself using that sly phrase--among other techniques--to get people to smile during my classes. For example, when we begin to extend our legs for wide-angle forward fold, I'll joke "OK, now don't everyone get into that full split just yet!" My YTT peers might sneer when I admit to have saying, "blossom your buttocks to the sky" (which I do if I think my students will smile at the imagery). Sometimes I feel a bit like a stand-up comedian, and it's really an amazing class when the students get into it. 

When students aren't into it, I'm OK with that. I either keep trying, or if the class is entirely serious, I might tone it down a bit. What I notice though, is that it's often the students who may have been practicing yoga for awhile who don't smile, or seem to really let go.  And, I'm writing this blog because I think they may be missing out. It's been my belief that making that small change in the face--moving the muscles of the mouth into a smile--helps relax the body and release tension. Sure enough, I've discovered that there's some science to back up my hunch. :-)

The Smithsonian and Medical News Today both reported on an interesting study done for Psychological Science back in 2012, where researchers "looked at how different types of smiling, and people being aware of smiling, affected their ability to recover from stressful episodes." What they found was that smiling (even when the smiling was "faked"), reduced participants' heart rates as they attempted to perform a stressful task. The Smithsonian article states: "Since heart rate is an indicator of the body’s stress response, it seems as though the act of smiling actually reduced the participants’ overall stress level." Although there are no available sources, they also suggested there were others who indicate "that smiling could reduce levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone."

When we are in yoga class, we are taking various shapes with the body, some of which may feel different, unnatural, or challenging (depending on our typical posture throughout the day). When we're feeling sensation in various muscles in the poses, we are in fact "stressing" the body, although in a good way. We use the breath, specifically the out-breath, to try and send relaxation, love, and compassion to those areas in the body. And, I believe more than ever before that smiling is yet another, simple and easy way to help ease the body into greater strength and flexibility during yoga.

So the next time you're in a yoga class (mine or someone else's), and you feel yourself tensing your body, losing your long deep breath, or pursing your lips in great seriousness, try putting on a smile. Like anything else you do in yoga class, let the smile be an exploration: what do you notice in your body, breath, mind, and spirit as you do this? Observe, pay attention, and then decide for yourself whether to do it again and again and again!

P.S.: For those of you who are serious (pun intended!) about taking your yoga practice off the mat, here's a short article listing some of the other benefits of smiling: http://goodrelaxation.com/2012/01/health-benefits-of-smiling/.

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