In the years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve witnessed the curative powers of yoga many times. Students with allergies, asthma, sciatica, mild scoliosis, chronic low back pain, shoulder injuries, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, fallen arches, plantar fasciitis have come to me with wide eyes and wonder in their voices to share their stories of healing. “Yoga cured me.” “Yoga fixed me.” “If it wasn’t for yoga, I don’t know what I would have done.”
They haven’t done anything different than you do. They come to class to move and breathe once or twice a week. Because they are hurting, perhaps they pay a bit more attention to their alignment. Perhaps they are more patient, resisting the urge to push too far or try too hard. But, like you, they are persistent. They show up and they are hopeful about the transformation that yoga promises.
I watch their bodies change week to week and month to month. I am thrilled when they tell me that they feel better. That their nagging aches and pains have faded away. That they are moving through life with more strength and flexibility than they’d ever dreamed was possible. But as miraculous as these “cures” are, there is something more wonderful going on that I cannot see. Yoga is not just transforming injury and ailment into wellness. Yoga is creating patterns and behaviors inside and out that prevent future injury, ailments and even illness.
At least 1300 years before Ben Franklin uttered his famous line about an ounce of prevention, a sage in India named Patanjali compiled The Yoga Sutras from even older wisdom sources. In sutra 11.16 he wrote:
This sutra makes me wonder (not for the first time) if Franklin was somehow also a yogi. While it’s fun to imagine this pillar of American heritage upside down in a headstand, it’s more meaningful to focus on the fact that this pearl of wisdom is a truth so powerful that sages for millennia have shared it with their students.
Franklin’s proverb is often said to mean that it is easier to stop something from happening than it is to fix the damage after it has happened. The same is true on our yoga mats. While yoga can cure, it is even better at helping us to stay well – in other words, to stop injury and illness from happening.
How it does this is open to debate. Daily movement is critically important to our wellbeing. So is getting our heart rate up and breaking a sweat. Increasing range of motion in our spine and joints makes us more comfortable in our bodies. Combined with the improved balance we earn on our mats, this mobility keeps us safer as we move through our lives. Yoga’s breathing strengthens and expands our lung capacity which gives us more endurance. It also slows our natural rate of breath which is very good for our peace of mind and focus.
I could go on and on, but I’ll stop with this: several of my students’ health insurance plans will reimburse them for their yoga classes because they are considered preventative care. (After all, who could ever doubt the wisdom of a health insurance company?)
I have no doubt that Patanjali and Franklin probably hoped we would take their pearls of wisdom a little further than our bodies. As so often occurs with yoga, the lessons we learn on our mats are just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, we learn to be aware of ourselves as we practice. But it’s more than that. We learn how to pay attention to our habits – we change the ones that need changing, we refine the ones that are beneficial. We learn to be mindful of even movements we’ve made a thousand times. We learn to take a deep breath when something is hard or scares us. We learn that holding our breath is a recipe for disaster. We learn that being mindful rather than on autopilot makes us better at whatever it is that we’re doing. We learn that what we think about ourselves matters – it can either empower us or limit us. We learn that some fears when faced shrink to nothing. We learn that other fears keep us safe.
All of these lessons translate powerfully into lives lived better. The “pain yet to come” that we are avoiding is so much more than a pulled muscle or sore back. Because we are living more mindfully, more thoughtfully and with more intention, we are preventing the pain of unnecessary conflict, the pinched feeling of not being true to ourselves and the suffering that comes from not stretching and growing into the people we hope to be.
If this is true (and I believe with all my heart that it is), an ounce of yoga may indeed be worth a pound of cure later on.