Finding Stillness

Yoga is more popular than Aussie Rules in terms of participation
It comes as a surprise to find yoga in Australia is more popular than Aussie Rules! Chandrika Gibson examines its enduring appeal.

The learning curve never ends for yoga practitioners. Some would say it carries over from lifetime to lifetime. What motivates people to try yoga, and why do so many people continue to embrace some or all aspects of a yoga lifestyle?

Certainly the most passionate about yoga hail its virtues and remain dedicated, often training to become yoga teachers themselves. A survey back in 1998 found that 15 million people in the US have tried yoga and 7.4 million people currently practise. More recently, the 2006 Yoga in Australia survey set out to discover the truth behind the phenomenon of yoga classes and teaching here.

Researchers Stephen Penman and Professor Marc Cohen of RMIT University collaborated with Philip Stevens and Sue Jackson on the large scale study to survey yoga practitioners and teachers. They noted that yoga is marginally more popular than Australian Rules Football (not as a spectator sport, but in terms of participation). In 2003, some 311,000 people practised yoga. Interestingly, the numbers dropped by 2006 as they did for Aussie Rules, too, perhaps as a function of a demographic shift, or maybe in response to a cultural change such as economic downturn or the rise of other exercise pursuits.

Most of the respondents started yoga for physical reasons, with 70% stating increased health and fitness, flexibility and muscle tone as their motivation to take up yoga. 58% took up yoga to help cope with stress and anxiety. Initially, 29% saw yoga as a form of personal development, but that number rose to 59% amongst practitioners when asked why they continue yoga. The 70% who were inspired by a fitness ideal evidently found yoga provided the workout they sought as between 82% and 86% gave physical benefits as a reason to continue. It seems that many people who start yoga find their expectations are met or even exceeded.

When given the opportunity to express their feelings about yoga freely, many participants wrote about its life changing, health enhancing, and spiritual components. The survey was publicly advertised and also sent out to yoga schools around Australia in order to sample the variety of styles, lineages and ideas in the yoga community. The findings assessed yoga students and yoga teachers and comparisons were drawn between the two groups. Some 1265 respondents identified themselves as yoga teachers or teachers in training. Yoga teachers tended to practise more frequently (five or more times per week) compared with students (1 - 2 times per week) and had practised for around seven years longer than their students on average. It's no surprise then that yoga is big business and teacher training courses have sprung up around the world over the past decade.

Is there an ideal way to learn yoga or is it a matter of personal choice? Traditionally, yoga was taught one on one and was likely to include more than just asana training. In India, the guru-sisya (teacher-student) relationship has an ancient tradition and students understand and embrace the inner transformation that comes from years of discipline.

The Western approach is, of course, quite different. Classes are held in dedicated yoga studios, ashrams, homes, community centres, schools and gyms where the teacher-student ratio varies from 1 - 1 to 1- 40 or even more. Teachers attempt to make a comfortable living, and students flit from one style to another, often changing teachers frequently, particularly in the first few years of practice. However, as the years go by serious students of yoga tend to settle to a style and teacher or teachers they respect. Genuine transformation akin to that of the ancients is still possible and experienced by students worldwide.

Learning any new skill requires openness. According to psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, some learners take a fixed mindset approach so that if they aren't immediately good at something they won't persist. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset are prepared to fail as often as it takes without giving up because they see each setback as a challenge and know that they can learn anything if they persevere. Yoga is a wonderful example of this model in action. Despite the Indian yoga tradition being historically male dominated, around 85% of regular yoga students today are women.

According to the Yoga in Australia survey, men are more attracted to the vigorous, physically demanding styles of yoga where strength and stamina are a benefit, whereas women are more evenly spread across the continuum of styles. (Notwithstanding the popularity of seated meditation techniques amongst both genders). This may have something to do with learning styles and mindsets.

Clearly, many beginners find it important to feel competent quickly. The postures that require long, flexible hamstrings and open hips are often challenging to bodies more accustomed to running based activities. Yoga Synergy founder Simon Borg-Olivier notes that in eastern cultures, squatting for ablutions keeps hips open, and carrying things on your head strengthens necks so that many classical postures are suitable and attainable for people living such lifestyles, but less appropriate for Australian urban yoga beginners.

While any kind of fitness is health promoting, yoga emphasises balance, flexibility in all directions, breath awareness and mental focus. Anyone with a growth mindset can practise any kind of yoga and continue to deepen their experience with consistency and continual effort. However, any learner with a fixed mindset will likely feel that unless they can 'achieve' the postures, yoga is not for them. For such students learning from books, DVDs and You Tube is unlikely to convey the needed information. It takes the gentle, firm, loving intention of a dedicated teacher to retain and work with 'fixed' minds and bodies. Many students will not continue for a wide range of reasons. Those who do continue to study and practise yoga find themselves re-oriented to a growth mindset and often adjust their lifestyles to meet their yogic ideals. Some feel moved to become yoga teachers themselves.

A 2010 study conducted at Harvard Medical School by Conboy, Wilson and Braun called Beyond Health to Flourishing, examined participants in a Kripalu yoga teacher training intensive. Even in a short, four week training program, trainees measured higher in tests of optimism and the mindfulness sub scales of observation, awareness and non-reactivity. The increased mindfulness participants experienced is associated with greater personal autonomy, improved connection with one's personal values and enhanced overall wellbeing.

There are many such teacher training intensives available, often in exotic and appealing resort settings such as Bali, Thailand and Goa, India. While many employ or are run by experienced teachers, the contact hours seldom meet the requirements for membership of Australia's peak body for yoga teachers, Yoga Australia (YA). To join YA as a level 1 member requires a minimum of 350 hours training over 12 months or more. The best yoga teacher training courses also insist on at least two years of regular practice and expect trainees to work diligently on their own practice, for it is understood that quality teaching arises from one's own practice.

While learning yoga is similar to learning any skill, it has uniquely transformative powers. Regular yoga practice (even for just a few months) has been shown to improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and post traumatic stress. Physical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, musculoskeletal and neurological conditions have also improved in clinical trials. Taking a growth mindset approach goes hand in hand with mindfulness. Self knowledge arises from working with physical limitations and mental fluctuations.

The famous sutra of Patanjali states that yoga begins when the fluctuations of the mind still. Teachers of yoga encourage students to observe their mental fluctuations and use the techniques of yoga to go deeper than the surface waves to find the stillness within. Every lineage of yoga has the inner journey of consciousness at heart, no matter how it is packaged and marketed. A dedicated student, held by an experienced teacher, can travel far and continue learning throughout this embodied lifetime and possibly beyond.

Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath