Ever thought after a few rounds of sun salutations in a yoga class: ‘I fancy doing that another 100 or so times?’ No? Neither had writer Laura Feasey before she decided to set herself a fitness challenge unlike no other.
Most of us know about the basic benefits of yoga. We’re constantly told about its ability to release stress, calm the mind and relax the body. If you’ve ever taken part in a yoga class, you’ll probably have experienced it for yourself – but what happens to your state of mind as you step off your mat and out into the world?
Like so many people, I’m usually stressed about something. I struggle to manage stress (who doesn’t?) and that leads to frequent migraines. Yoga has always appealed to me as a way of curbing that stress reaction. In the beginning, I loved the physicality of it – I wanted to be stronger and more flexible – but it wasn’t until recently that I found myself delving further into what it could give to me mentally.
Yoga as a stress reliever
I’ve been practising yoga for 15 years and while I always felt calm and happy at the end of a class, I felt that sense of peace start to dissipate almost as soon as I walked away from my mat and into the big, bad world.
That’s something I’m sure many of us can relate to; you feel great in the yoga studio but within 10 minutes of navigating traffic and walking through the front door to the wants, needs and noise of your family, you can’t even remember what it felt like when you muttered ‘namaste’, let alone get back into the zone.
Our bodies hold onto stress. “In evolutionary terms, our bodies are much older than our minds and hold so much wisdom; they will always seek to function for survival and protection,” explains Dr Stephanie Minchin, clinical psychologist, yoga teacher and therapist.
“When we experience negative emotion, our whole nervous system is activated in the fight or flight response. When we experience stress or mental health difficulties, our bodies really show this.” Dr Minchin tells Stylist that when yoga teachers talk about us storing emotion in our hips, it’s because our hip flexor plays a key function in the fight or flight response: “Chronic stress over time can contribute to a tightening of this muscle and therefore requires breath and movement to release it.”
I used to just accept stress as a normal state of being: I’d happily take the physical benefits of yoga and enjoy any inner calm while it lasted, but there was no way that I could keep that mindset going off the mat. That was until I set myself a challenge of doing one monumental round of sun salutations.
The 108 sun salutation challenge for strengthening body and mind
Why sun salutations? Enter Travis Eliot, yin yoga master of YouTube. While recently looking for something more challenging, I found his online course Level Up 108, which consists of several weeks of yoga culminating in a 108th class of 108 sun salutations, one after another. I was up for the physical challenge.
What I didn’t expect, however, was how much I would benefit from it mentally. “Doing 108 sun salutations is like an athletic meditation in motion,” Eliot says. “The beautiful thing is while you are getting an amazing workout, you are also receiving mental benefits. These include focus, concentration and calmness – all qualities greatly benefiting us in our relationships, career, school studies and daily activities.”
I certainly noticed a difference in my headspace going through this challenge. At first, I was dreading it. As the class began, I kept on thinking about that colossal number: 108. But a few rounds in, I settled into the flow while everything else just sort of fell away. Eliot refers to this as the ‘flow state’.
“Flow state is a peak level of awareness similar to an athlete being in the zone. There is a direct correlation between flow state and happiness. The 108 sun salutation practice puts practitioners into a flow state, leaving one feeling incredibly accomplished and joyful upon completion,” he claims.
I definitely felt joy when it finished, and not just because it was over. Midway through, unsurprisingly, I started to hurt. My upper body didn’t appreciate the countless chaturanga (like a slow push up in reverse) and I wanted to stop, but I knew I didn’t need to stop (we’ll come onto that in a minute), and something in my mind switched.
Instead of labelling the experience with an emotional tag (eg. ‘this is very distressing’), I was able to just observe the physical feeling. By taking the emotional response away, I could carry on.
Dr Minchin explains: “As levels of stress are reduced, we learn to become more present in our experience. We’re more aware of our minds and thinking patterns, observing our thoughts rather than getting stuck in a loop with them, as opposed to the negative rumination of depression and the worried racing mind of anxiety.”
This is what I started to notice in my day-to-day. My emotional responses weren’t so ready to tumble, I caught myself as I was starting to worry and I found it easier to stop that ‘racing mind’.
Learning self-love and kindness through physical challenge
A little kindness (to yourself) goes a long way. In life – and certainly in the middle of an exercise class – there’s a difference between wanting and needing to stop. Over the years, I’ve convinced myself that I’m only successful if I’m going full-pelt, wearing myself out.
“In modern-day society, we are often programmed to go hard, fast and full out 110% all the time,” says Eliot. “If we don’t, we think we are going to get left behind. It’s as if we are running a phantom race that can never be won.”
The 108 sun salutation practice is very challenging, he admits, and like a long-distance event, it can be humbling. That’s all part of the process; we’re taught patience and the importance of not letting the ego take over. “If the ego gets in the way and you overdo it, there’s a good chance you won’t make it to the end,” he warns.
You want to reach a point where you’re able to move according to how you feel, not how you think you feel. “In many ways these teachings help us in life because any time the dysfunctional ego gets involved, we create our own suffering. The harder you hold on to something, the quicker you wear it out.”
Through yoga, I’ve started to notice when I’m doing more harm than good. I’m learning the art of easing off. Living with migraines, this challenge has proved to me the importance of resting when I’m in pain.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t allow ourselves to get to a heightened state of stress but noticing and acting on symptoms is a good place to start rebalancing. The 108 sun salutation challenge has proved to be the first step on the path to learning how to be kinder to myself and understanding that time ‘off’ can be more productive than time ‘on’.
Ready for a similar sun salutation challenge? Check out our 15-minute mobility classes to limber up ready to flow.
Images: Getty/author’s own
Recommended by Laura Feasey
“I tried yin yoga for a month – here’s how it improved my mental and physical health”
Looking for the calmness of yoga and the strength training of pilates? Try yogilates
“I did wall sits every day for a month – here’s what happened“
“I tried a 30-day kettlebell challenge in lockdown – and now I can do a press-up”