Rewiring your brain: The unexpected benefits of YouTube yoga
This extended quarantine could be shocking for your mental and physical health, or it could be a chance to make some real positive changes. Without being presumptuous, I want to share something I've been doing recently that might be a huge help, both for your body and for your mindset as the COVID-19 juggernaut continues dominating our lives over the coming months.
For background, let me say this: I promise I started from a worse place than most people. Two years ago I fractured a vertebra in a nasty car accident while recovering from completely snapping my patellar tendon on a trampoline. I spent months in bed, losing a ton of strength, along with any meagre fitness or flexibility I may have had. As a 43 year old, class 2 obese male with two kids and a desk job writing for New Atlas, getting started was no easy matter.
But get started I did, and for some reason unbeknownst to me I gravitated toward YouTube yoga sessions as I started to wind down my rehab physio treatments. I had never done anything like it before. I guess I like to put myself in weird new situations and be on the steep part of the learning curve.
It was hard. Some of the "resting" poses were physically impossible; I haven't sat cross-legged on the floor since primary school and my legs just don't do that. I persisted, grunting and sweating my way through a video or two a week from all sorts of different channels. Yoga with Tim. Yoga with Bird. Sarah Beth. Whatever came up. when I searched for "yoga for complete, hopeless, inflexible beginners." I tried to "get comfortable with discomfort," and each 10, 20 or occasionally 30 minute session would leave me feeling stronger and more limber the next day.
Circumstances were never ideal. I don't have a mat, I'd just do it on the carpet. My dog would frequently see me on the floor and think I wanted to wrestle, so I'd end up with 35 kilos of labrador all up and under and on top of me. My kids would treat me like a climbing frame, or stick their bums in my face as I tried to hold certain stretches. I persisted. I even got my wife to start joining in.
Sometime just after Christmas last year, I decided that if I felt good every time I did the damn yoga, I should do more of the damn yoga. So I committed to a 30-day course called Home by the biggest yoga YouTuber on the planet, a ridiculously bright and positive gal called Adriene Mishler who runs the Yoga with Adriene channel and has become an absolute juggernaut in her own right, with 6.4 million subscribers and counting.
Here's where I felt this stuff really starting to work on me. I'm not going to go too far into what it's done for me physically, because after one or two classes you'll have a good idea how much it challenges you for strength, flexibility, balance and endurance to take this on daily, and what the physical benefits might be. Any form of regular exercise will improve you physically, and choosing to do something really hard every day makes the rest of your day easier.
The more interesting things for me have been in the mindset of the practice. This will get weirdly personal, so apologies in advance.
When you're starting out from a shitty place, it's easy to get hung up on the things that put you there. Laziness. Bad choices. Self-inflicted injuries. Overeating. External pressures. Weakness of character. That's a highly negative mindset to take into a new habit you're trying to form.
Adriene is relentlessly forgiving. If you can't do this pose, she'll often say, you're not alone. Try this instead, or take a break if you need to. Spending more than 80 sessions now with somebody that forgives me for my inadequacies in such an encouraging way has wormed itself into my brain.
I feel like I'm starting to forgive myself and others much quicker than I ever used to, which feels like a genuine step towards self-love and self-care. These are not concepts I have ever interacted with before, and they feel like a weight off my shoulders.
A physical meditation
Yoga might look like a series of physical challenges, but I'm starting to see it much more as a physical form of meditation. Regular meditation strikes me as being all about developing a zen-like awareness in the moment, a detachment from the chattering mind, a mastery over one's attention and a remote viewpoint on the self. Yoga takes those tools of awareness and applies them to the body.
So as you become more familiar with the different poses, you begin really tuning in to your muscles, your joints, your bones, your tendons and your breath. You learn to feel the "heat" beginning to build as a muscle starts working, and anticipate the shaking you get when they're called on for sustained effort. You start to identify which motions you're avoiding to protect something that doesn't need protecting any more, and which ones you genuinely need to go easy on.
For me, it was like starting to rebuild a kinetic map of my body that had deteriorated since I stopped playing sports in my late 20s. Adriene would have me stand still for minutes on end, not fidgeting around on my feet as I would usually, and I'd become painfully aware of how weak and sore my feet were, how that was affecting my posture and physical habits, how I might be able to work to correct it.
It's this process of precise physical awareness that makes this feel like a meditation to me – when I get the chance to do this stuff with the kids in bed and the dog too tuckered out to get involved. At the end of the sessions, which last at least 20 minutes with Adriene's channel, I feel a lot of the same mental clarity and calmness I get from meditating, with a nice rush of exercise endorphins to boot.
Gently approaching the point of failure
As a bro dude, my approach to exercise in the past has always been flat out. Heavy lifting, maximum exertion, pushing hard, going for it. This was a real issue when I started rehabbing after the injuries, because I'd go too hard and set myself back several days, putting myself in a ton of pain in the process.
YouTube yoga has helped me change that mindset. Sure, you can strike out at poses you're too weak or inflexible for and hurt yourself. Lots of people do. Yoga injuries are super common, and lots of them appear to be caused by people trying to nail the show-off Instagram poses: headstands, hand balances, extreme twists and whatnot.
But Adriene's attitude of self-acceptance and forgiveness has allowed me to gently push at my physical limits, and the mindful, meditative awareness aspect has allowed me to really tune in to what's going on, and decide carefully what to push against, what to leave alone, where I'm strong enough to apply extra effort and where I should back off and work on basics before going too hard and sending myself backwards.
No other kind of exercise has ever made me so aware of these things. It feels like a responsible way to work with a compromised body. Hitting poses for Instagram seems counter to the point, the point being that yoga isn't about reaching a destination, it's about being ever-mindful in the process, and finding exactly the right level for you to work at, even if you have to forgive yourself for being at such a crappy level to do it. This is a place egos should come to die.
A conversation with the body
That point was driven home by day 30 of the Home program. I came in excited to take some sort of final test and see how far I'd come. And I was a bit pissed when Adriene announced that she wasn't going to say anything at all, that we should use this session as a chance to "find what feels good" and do whatever the hell we felt like for 45 minutes, only looking up to the screen if we needed inspiration.
But I started out, and suddenly a bunch of things started to click, and although I'm still working at a very basic level, I started to finally understand yoga as a kind of language. Over the previous month, we'd been doing little physical vocabulary exercises, and now, mindfully and carefully, I was starting to have a conversation with my own body instead of just parroting what my teacher was saying.
I held poses longer, worked gently at edges and sore spots peculiar to my situation. I focused on moving with breath, and did extra work around my lower back and knees. I paid careful attention to how far I was stretching and moved mindfully between different poses. Without Adriene speaking, my attention was totally focused. It was an extraordinary experience, and it felt amazing.
Adriene knows the breadth of her audience well enough to steer clear of too much chakra and meridian talk.
Afterwards, I went and wrote her a long, gushy letter of thanks. It takes a truly great teacher to get you to a point where you can stand on your own two feet, if only for a short while, and with the amount of free content Adriene puts out, she has sent some amazing ripples out into the pond.
This is a mildly embarrassing thing to write about on a website with such a hard science focus, but I'm comfortable embarrassing myself for your benefit. I'm aware of our audience demographics, and of the perception that's out there of yoga as something for crystal-collecting astrology fans and lycra-buttocked Insta-bunnies. I'm not into that stuff, and Adriene knows the breadth of her audience well enough to steer clear of too much chakra and meridian talk.
I'm prepared to see yoga as a spiritual pursuit to the degree that I'm prepared to with meditation. I think some of the language is helpful in changing perspective. But my experience over the last few months does feel like it's done some subtle and very positive rewiring of my brain as well as my body, and I'm overwhelmed with gratitude, even if there's still a ton of stuff I can't do even in these beginner courses. I still can't sit cross legged for any length of time, but I'm slowly getting there and it's very cool to feel that kind of progress.
I don't know enough about yoga to know how much of this is the fundamentals, and how much Adriene personally brings to the table, but I do know this: she's a ray of sunshine to bring into your living room, and this has been a hugely beneficial thing for me. For those of you out there wondering how the hell you're going to get through the long months of lockdown, I would humbly put it forward as something that might help you come out of the COVID-19 era stronger, calmer, more content and positive than you went in.
Just please, take it easy, never push too hard, and be super mindful of your movements. And I'm sure that working with a teacher who can help make sure you're not doing things wrong is even better. A lot of those guys and girls are probably stuck at home too right now, and might be available to supervise over a video link.