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It’s the truth in this meme that makes it as funny as it is. Very few people who practice yoga question the notion that yoga helps us like act better people. The better question is how does it work? In a nutshell, yoga creates space. When we feel less cramped in and by life, we are simply more pleasant to be around.
Yoga creates space in the body
First, yoga creates physical space in the body. Unused muscles can get shortened and stiff. This can leave us feeling pinched in our own bodies. Yoga asanas or postures are designed to lengthen our muscles and to “stretch” us out. The change in the body can be so marked that it is not uncommon for students to report that they have had to buy new long-sleeved shirts and even pants after practicing for a year or so.
But having longer arms or legs isn’t what makes us feel so good. That comes mostly from the changes yoga creates in the spine. As we move through our practice, we extend our heart from our hips over and over again. In other words, we lengthen our spine. This resolves chronic compression of the spine itself that can come from standing at counters or sitting hunched at a keyboard or a steering wheel or from simply being exhausted. The space that comes from lengthening our spine feels good – almost like that first luxurious stretch when you wake up.
Yoga creates the space to breathe
The improved posture that results from a regular yoga practice helps us to breathe more deeply. When we allow our spines to droop and slouch, we are compressing our diaphragm and lungs. Essentially, it is harder to breathe when we slouch. When we stand and sit up straight, we are able to breathe fully.
When we are breathing well, we automatically feel brighter mentally and emotionally. First and foremost, we are providing our body with more oxygen, which each and every one of us can benefit from. More importantly, free, full breaths unplug our fight or flight response. We are actually getting a handle on our parasympathetic nervous system. We feel more settled, safe and secure even in the most challenging situations when we consciously choose to mindfully breathe as we do in our yoga practice.
Yoga creates some clarifying space in our minds
Not only does yoga free up the space to breathe fully, but it clears some space in our minds. Dashing through our daily to-do lists can leave us feeling harried and harassed. We feel cramped by the sheer volume of things we need to do and think about. Yoga asks us to focus our awareness on each individual moment. If we allow our minds to wander, our alignment slips, our breath shrinks and our balance falters.
These little wobbles are all like alarms that we’ve become distracted by a thought or a worry or a plan; that we have allowed our focus to slip from the present moment to the past or the future. Because it is impossible to do anything in the past or the future (mostly because we’re not actually, physically there), we feel helpless. When we learn to keep our awareness in “the now,” we feel fully present, free and empowered to do this one thing (whether that’s standing on one foot or making dinner or writing a presentation) now.
Yoga creates some space from and perspective about our feelings
The conscious focus that we develop in our yoga practice also helps us find clarity in our emotions. It’s not hard to be overwhelmed by our feelings – excitement, stress, fear, sadness, joy. Emotions can roll through us like tidal waves, washing away perspective and reason. The mindfulness that we practice on our yoga mats, teaches us to observe our feelings rather than react to them. Because we’re able to observe our feelings, we realize that, though they are real and powerful, they do not define us. We connect with the peace and calm that is always at our essence beneath even these most turbulent emotions.
Can you see now how yoga gives us the space to act like better people? We feel better in our bodies because we’ve replaced compression with space, and we’re simply more pleasant. We have the space (physically and mentally) to take a deep breath, and we’re calmer and more even-keeled. We’re less distracted by a clutter of thoughts and feel more spacious and clear-headed so that we’re able to be fully engaged and compassionate with whoever is right in front of us. We get some space from our feelings, and we’re less likely to react and more likely to mindfully act as the people we hope to be.
Yoga gives us the space to mess up, apologize and try again
Best of all, if life does get to us “before we’ve yoga-ed” and we slip up, all of our practice has given us the space to understand that messing up is part of the process. All we need to do is say, “Sorry for what I did before I yoga-ed” and get right back to practicing – on or off the mat.