Yoga?! Meh… It’s too slow to be a great work out. I could never twist around and bend like “that.” I’ll break my neck trying to do a headstand. I can practice mindfulness without hitting the mat. I’m too (shoulder slump) old…
Wrong, wrong, wrong, and oh-so-very-unbelievably wrong.
As it turns out, my deep dive into Hatha yoga has been one of the single best journeys of my life: a journey that will continue and yield even greater benefits as long as I continue to practice. I’m inclined to regret that I didn’t begin this work sooner, but I suppose the practice came to me at just the right time, or in “divine time” as one of my instructors put it, explaining that there is no such thing as “late.”
This is just one of many external and internal insights that burst into my consciousness through the consistent practice and study of yoga. “Study” is a funny word to use here, as yoga actually requires an “unlearning” of previously held beliefs. For me, it was the beliefs I have stated above. Letting go of those preconceived notions of yoga (and of myself) opened the door to heightened awareness, wellness, love, and connection. “Yoga” is actually derived from the Sanskrit term which means “to yoke” or unite; in this case, body mind and spirit, or the self to the all.
Yoga is not merely a physical workout.
Time spent on a sticky mat (Hatha Yoga) is just one step on an Eightfold Path, a non-religious code of ethics. Although the Eightfold Path is part of ancient Indian philosophy, the ideas are so easily relatable to modern life. For example, “ahimsa” which is the first of the Yamas that make up the first step in the path, relates to “non-harming,” which includes all of the world and the self. Ahimsa now guides my thinking about my personal impact on the environment, informs my self talk, and even shapes my diet and exercise decisions.
Yoga is a deeply personal practice.
It is difficult to describe the impacts of yoga on my life thus far primarily because yoga is a deeply personal practice. This was lesson number one. It is personal, because what you bring to the mat mentally is yours alone, as is your unique body. Sadly (tragically, in fact), Western culture has painted a picture of what yoga should “look like” as a means of marketing. And that image is slim and bendy. I am neither… My unlearning came with the realization that not only are these images unrealistic, they can be physically impossible based on each individual’s anatomical differences. Attempting to bend and twist in this way or that, “like the picture” may result in serious injury.
The object of Hatha yoga (the physical practice) is to bring non judgemental awareness to the body through synchronized movement and breath. To recognize the difference between sensation and pain. To challenge yourself, yet respect your body’s natural boundaries and limitations. To embrace that powerful combination of effort and relaxation in each asana. In this way, the physical practice of yoga can strengthen, relax, and clear energy pathways within your body.
Yoga is the ultimate means of achieving self-awareness.
When I used to attend yoga classes, I tended to hide in the back because I was self conscious and comparing. Now I like to arrive early for a place up front not to show off, but to be completely undistracted. The instructors at my studio are particularly good at verbal cueing so unless the asana requires a point of visual focus for balance (drishti), I even try to keep my eyes shut and turn my focus toward my breathing and the placement of my limbs in space. Asanas, or poses, are challenging and finding myself in a flow state is the ultimate experience of mindfulness for me.
There is always room for progress in yoga.
My mind still wanders. I wobble and topple out of balancing poses. I catch the performance of my classmates in my peripheral vision. A prick of disappointment swiftly stabs when I can’t hold that plank as long as I did in the class before. That extra oreo I ate could be seen as “self-harming.” There is always room for progress. There is no final exam to pass. Yoga is for me, maintenance as well as continuous evolution. Hatha Yoga grounds me in a different way than a sitting meditation when distracting thoughts and preoccupations threaten my sense of ease. Consistent practice makes these instances less regular and more manageable during my life off the mat.
Yoga can release blocked emotions.
You never know what emotions you will tap into during your time on the mat. At the end of a particularly vigorous Vinyasa Flow taught by one of the more spiritual teachers at my studio, the reading of a poem about “Letting go” literally brought tears streaming down my face during Savasana. Clearly something needed to be released. What exactly, I have no idea. What I do know is that I felt perceptively lighter for the rest of the day. Energies are cleared and emotions that are trapped in the physical body are released during yoga practice.
Yoga is for everyone.
I repeat, yoga is for everyone, regardless of age, ability, or disability. Careful study of the ancient philosophy provides a code for mindful living, and consistent physical practice yields ever greater results. For me, making yoga part of my daily life has been the ultimate act of self-love. If you are new to yoga, welcome to an incredible journey. The divine light in me honors the divine light in you. Namaste.