Yoga, for the past 10 years or so, has been an important occupation of mine and a way I can practice self-reflection, compassion, and serenity. Yoga is a form of exercise, which incorporates both spiritual and physical wellbeing as well as focuses on meditation, breathing and increasing flexibility. I value yoga tremendously for its total mind-body practice, spiritual growth, and connection to the community. It is through yoga, I am provided with tools to better understand and embrace my life circumstances and emotions in a more holistic way. From an occupational therapy standpoint, attending a yoga class involves multiple performance skills in cognition, motor capabilities, emotional regulation, sensory integration, social interaction and etiquette, as well as adaptations to the context. Overall, attending a yoga class includes getting to the building itself where the yoga activity is being carried out, socializing with others in the group, performing the activity itself, packing materials, and then getting home again. Yoga requires a span of mental functions as well as higher-level cognition, attention, memory, thought, and sequencing. It also demands global mental functions such as awareness, consciousness, orientation, energy and drive, and sleep. Knowing when to do easier or harder modifications of poses based on one’s level of flexibility or endurance requires sound judgment as well as awareness of one’s own physical strengths and weaknesses.
Additionally, concentration is important to partake in the occupation of yoga in order to be able to pay attention to the instructor and be guided into correct body positions for the intended poses. As such, sustained and selective attention is also needed to maintain visual attention to the instructor as well as to focus on own body positioning. Short and long-term memory are other prime cognitive skills necessary for yoga: it is possible that when the instructor is giving directives, participants may forget what he/she said shortly after. Similarly, participants can remember poses for another yoga class in the future. Furthermore, perception, imitation, sequencing, and constructing can affect a participant’s ability to organize/control his or her movements of the different poses in a timely and safe manner. Appropriate thought is required to effectively participate in yoga to know what to wear, what to bring, how to use materials, and focus on intended poses as opposed to drifting off and thinking about other things like work, school, and errands. Orientation to time is another important cognitive function to arrive to class on time. Motivation (ie. values, beliefs, and spirituality) are needed to drive to class and engage in the hour-long activity. Last but not least, awareness of reality can be vital to one’s experience in a yoga class; while doing certain poses, a person can meditate and imagine he or she is somewhere else. In turn, the participant should be able to come back to reality and understand where they are.
In these ways, yoga involves a range of cognitive abilities. Yoga also demands certain motor skills. As outlined in the OTPF, motor skills involve “occupational performance skills observed as the person interacts with and moves task objects and self around the task environment.” For yoga, important motor skills include but are not limited to alignment, stabilization, positioning, reaching, bending, manipulating, movement, lifting, walking, transporting, endurance, and pacing. As such, during the meditative process of yoga, one may be required to stand up straight and engage their core (alignment). Transitional poses in yoga can demand stabilization, or the ability to move on to the next movement without losing balance. Position wise, participants must make sure that the yoga mat is directly underneath them. Before class begins, participants will need to reach and grab a yoga mat. Bending is required to do stretching exercises while manipulating is required to unravel a rolled-up yoga mat. A participant also has to be able to pull his or her yoga mat to a desired area on the floor of the gym/studio. Once the class has finished, participants will have to pick up their yoga mats and return them to the instructor or carry them out of the gym. Most of these activity demands also require walking abilities. Additionally, being each pose is approximately a few minutes long, participants ideally should be able to sustain muscle contraction long enough until the next pose (endurance). Lastly, participants should be able to follow all of the poses as taught by the instructor for the duration of class. Other important motor skills for yoga consists of hand-eye coordination, bilateral coordination, crossing midline, as well as fine and gross motor control. Full range of motion of upper and lower extremities is needed to hold certain poses. Participants in class will also need to keep back straight when doing certain exercises like a squat. Enough muscle power is vital to carry one’s own body weight as a form of resistance to do poses. High muscle tone is required to maintain proper posture.
Yoga demands that one understands the feeling of being overly stretched while doing certain poses while also repositioning oneself when doing a pose that requires balance. This is referred to as stretching and righting/supporting reflexes, respectively. Hand-eye coordination is necessary when placing hands on the intended areas of the mat to help support the rest of the body for poses. Bilateral coordination is required for placing both hands on the ground for poses that help stabilize the body such as plank pose. Crossing midline refers to the ability to do twisting stretches which require participants to reach for his or her contralateral side. Participants will use fine motor control to reach for their toes in a forward bend stretch while using gross motor control to do the warrior pose (ie. spreading legs into a deep lunge and extending arms overhead). Besides cognitive and motor skills, yoga also requires certain sensory functions and abilities. Such sensory skills comprise of visual modulation, auditory sensation, tolerance to vestibular and proprioceptive processing, comfort with touch and pressure, and localization of pain. Listening to directives from the instructor despite chatter outside of the studio requires auditory discrimination. Similarly, auditory discrimination is needed in order to focus on one’s breath throughout the class. If participants do not understand the verbal instructions of the instructor, they can look at him/her to learn the pose (visual). The vestibular sense helps with balance and spatial orientation: participants must remain over their mats throughout class and be able to adjust their bodies when they are moving too far from the edge of the mat. Proprioceptive processing controls body awareness and prevents a person from falling; this sense refers to the body’s ability to sense movement within joints and joint position. It allows us to know where our limbs are in space even when our eyes are closes and is essential for precise coordination. This also includes ability to stand, sit up right, and move limbs into desired positions. Additionally, participants must be okay with feeling pressure on their hands against the mat (comfort with touch and pressure) as well as localizing pain to make any appropriate adjustments. Spatial awareness is also needed to set up the yoga mats at a good distance from others to perform movements comfortably.
The ability to integrate all of these senses is necessary to fully engage in a yoga class. Emotional regulation skills are also needed to participate in a yoga class. If a person is having difficulty doing a pose, he or she will have to know how to control their frustrations. Appropriate emotion or affect for a yoga class is generally happy, relaxed, and/or somewhat neutral. If a participant is going through a hard time in their lives personally, he or she has to be able to cope with their emotions in class and be able to calm down. An emotional coping skill can include positive thinking—participants should be able to put themselves in a positive mindset and believe they can complete the yoga class. A healthy body image and good self-esteem are important as well in yoga since it is a strenuous physical activity. Arousal is key here too: while doing certain positions, it is acceptable to engage in meditation; however, participants should respond to verbal stimuli of the instructor to move on to the next position. Yoga does not require speaking to others; however, participants can encourage one another with positive feedback. Social norms will include quietly paying attention to the instructor so that all participants can hear as well as keeping statements short so that the instructor can continue to teach the class. In reference to the OTPF social interaction skills, yoga calls for skills in approaching others, speech production, gesturing, eye contact, personal space, questioning, and responding to name a few. For example, participants are allowed to approach the instructor after class to give compliments or constructive feedback. Speech production is necessary to do this as well. On the other hand, participants should be aware of when to respectfully stop conversations to allow the instructor to teach the class. Gesturing can be useful in the beginning and end of class when people can greet each other via waving, bowing, or smiling with a nod. Eye contact and turning towards the instructor throughout the class will be an important social skill during the activity as well as when greeting others. Awareness of personal space is necessary so that there is enough space between other classmates and participant, and so that everyone is comfortable.
Participants may also ask for further direction from the instructor by raising their hands during class, in which case requires questioning skills. In general, participants should also be aware of social etiquette, such as being punctual to every class, maintain personal hygiene, ensuring shoes are removed outside of studio (where possible), and settling down quietly upon arrival. Last in sequence but not least in importance, responding to the instructor and/or other classmates will be another required social skill in a yoga class. Lastly, space demands and the physical environment (ie. context) need also be considered when participating in a yoga class. To adequately and successfully engage in this activity, there needs to be enough space for all participants for them to bend down and stand up again without hitting each other or any objects. The room should also be well ventilated to prevent over-heating as well as to promote better breathing. Lighting should also be bright enough so that participants can properly see the instructor. The objects required for a yoga class include yoga mat (preferably with grip), yoga blocks (optional), bottle of water (for drinking), light and appropriate fitness attire, and a car or some method of transportation in order to get to and from class. It is also imperative to consider the cultural context as well: there can be a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and varying levels of athleticism. As such, it is important participants are respectful to everyone, despite his or her level of physical capabilities. In conclusion, yoga is an activity that requires many performance skills. Certain skill components in cognition, motor and sensory processing, emotional regulation, communication, social interaction along with the overall context should all be considered when participating in a yoga class.