“If I come along, how many calories will I burn in a class?”

This is a question that was put to me whilst having a cuppa with a couple of old university friends the other Sunday. I gave a brief answer about yoga being about “much more than that” but what is yoga actually about? And why are so many people caught up in hectic city lifestyles finding happiness through the practice?

Physically speaking, the benefits are pretty well known: improving flexibility, core strength and general levels of fitness. Mentally, it helps you de-stress and relax, and then there’s also the bonus that it focuses on the energy channels in your body, increasing the flow of energy or ‘prana’ to your vital organs.

But I think what makes it for me is, by the end of a long relaxation or ‘savasana’, I feel like my entire being has been cleansed. The sense of release and letting go can be immense.

Half spinal twist
Ardha matsyendrasana/ half spinal twist (from yogastudy.org)

There are certain types of asanas that are ideal for this such as hip openers, twists and lunges. Take ardha matsyendrasana for example: with your inhalation, the abdomen presses firmly against your leg, and then with your exhalation, you can find space to twist deeper into the asana. People can hold so much stress and anxiety in their abdomens and by twisting, you’re wringing out your internal organs, releasing those emotions. Also, as you release the posture, a rush of oxygen goes to your internal organs cleansing and re-energising them.

 It’s similar with half pigeon. Women in particular tend to hold tension and emotion in their thighs and buttocks and by performing this posture, you’re working really deeply into these areas, whilst opening the hips at the same time.The asana practice also works on the subtle body and sometimes the release can be both unexpected and profoundly deep. I remember being at the Sivananda ashram in Kerala, lying on my back with about 40 other yogis on a stone floor doing double leg raises. All of a sudden tears started streaming down both sides of my face collecting in my ears and on my mat. It was the first time I’d cried during a class and I felt confused and slightly embarrassed. But I couldn’t stop.

Half pigeon pose (from caitplusate.com)
Half pigeon pose (from caitplusate.com)

Later that day, I sheepishly mentioned it to a couple of people and it turned out that they’d all shed tears in classes at the ashram. It was almost like a rite of passage and as we discussed it, it made sense. It was as if our bodies were being purged of any pent up emotion we’d been carrying. We were cleansing our bodies of past hurt, grief and upset and then we felt ready to continue with our lives. Now I’m not saying that if you come to a class, you’re going to walk out a sobbing wreck but I’ve since experienced people crying in classes and it’s nothing to worry about.

And the cleansing aspect of yoga isn’t just felt through the practice of asanas. There’s also ‘kriyas’ which are specific cleansing practices for the insides of your body. I won’t go into all of them now but if you ever have a cold or blocked sinuses you need to get yourself a neti pot. You fill this with warm water and a little salt and the neti pot has a spout that allows you to pour the water into one nostril. By placing your head at an angle, the water pours out of the other nostril at the same time as going into your sinuses, clearing out the passages. Blowing your nose after the practice makes sure everything is out once and for all!

‘Kirtan’ or chanting and meditation are ways to cleanse the mind and free yourself from egoism thus placing everyone on an equal footing. If you’re interested in finding out more about these, go along to a satsang but take an open mind too.

So, in answer to my friend’s question, I’d have to say that I haven’t got the foggiest about how many calories you’d burn in a class. But who knows, one day she may feel inclined to come along and see what other benefits she can derive from the practice. Hari om tat sat.

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