An article on the BBC website this week looked at how yoga and meditation are being used in prisons around the world to help inmates become calmer and to foster a more positive, relaxed atmosphere in jail. A quick Google news search this morning pulled up another news article in the Daily Express which looked at claims that yoga could help cancer patients better cope with their illness and speed their recovery.
I am always sceptical when a newspaper reports on the latest health benefits of practising yoga. You read so many articles extolling the virtues of the latest super-food or examining the latest claims from unnamed experts about the benefits of everything from homoeopathy to red wine. Yoga often seems to be lumped in as something ‘new age’ that may, depending on the day and the newspaper, either help you reach your hundredth birthday or utterly endanger your life.
This week I was also translating into English some captions from photos of Indian miniatures which showed various yoga poses. I admit that I had to do some online research to find the best definitions for terms like chakra and kundalini. Despite the fact I have been attending yoga classes for many years, I have never really been drawn to the spiritual aspects of the practice. Sitting on the sticky floor of the assembly hall at our local primary school, where classes are held, I have never really felt like I was at connected with the earth below me or one with the universe or communing with an unseen divine greatness. The yoga teachers with whom I have most progressed as a yoga student have always been the ones who take the more spiritual aspects of yoga and translate that into physical disciplines.
Every yoga teacher I have had has taught me something different and I am more than happy to end my practice with a few swiftly chanted oms, I feel the most benefit in classes where positions are explained in terms of muscle movements and the correct placement of hands and feet rather. I like retraining my body out of bad habits and movements and applying what I learn outside the class as well. Something as banal and simple as turning the palm of your hand up to face the ceiling becomes an anatomy lesson once you concentrate on moving your shoulder and upper arm rather than just absent-mindedly flipping over your hand. Yoga practice still gives me the same calm and positivity being promoted to prisoners, but I get it by the physical act of understanding and controlling my own body better. Perhaps some other people would see a spiritual element to that. Either way, I may never achieve some of the positions in these images from the archive but I’m getting there in my own manner.