“Yoga does not remove us from the reality or responsibilities of everyday life but rather places our feet firmly and resolutely in the practical ground of experience. We don’t transcend our lives; we return to the life we left behind in the hopes of something better.” –Donna Farhi
It’s hard to believe, but this summer marks my 10 year yoga-versary. My high school dance coach first introduced us (well, more like forced us) to go to yoga, and while yoga and I have had our ups and downs, I can say dedicating myself to the practice has been one of the best things I have ever done for myself. So, in lieu of this momentous celebration, I devised a list of 10 benefits yoga brought to my life:
1. Self-awareness: One time, I was SO hungry on my way to yoga that I stopped and got a Wendy’s hamburger. I felt like I was going to throw up the entire class. Another time, I ate a bunch of potato chips before bed, and my calf cramped halfway into class. If I drink the night before or stay up too late, I can always feel it in my joints, and while the Culver’s french fries right next to the studio, or the Starbucks coffee on the route home seem like a really good idea, I know I just spent an hour detoxing my body…
Other than just the physical characteristics, yoga helped me to gain awareness of my mental processes. For example, this morning, I woke up kind of in a funk, and it was during my yoga class that I remembered I had one of those pre-going-back-to-school nightmares every teacher experiences, about starting my first day of class, and not being prepared. Once I can pinpoint why I am in a bad mood, or why I am so tired, or if I am feeling sick, I can better regulate my moods, and my actions.
2. Self-confidence: There’s a lot of very physical parts of being human that come out during yoga class. It does not matter how much make up you wear, or how nice your yoga clothes are–you are going to sweat in yoga. You can spend an hour straightening your hair, and it’s all going to fall out once you use it as an excuse to to take a break during your flow because “your hair is in your face”. Your face might get beet-red, your stomach might make some funny noises, you might embarrassingly slip on your puddle of sweat, and you might do some really awkward (and sometimes sexual sounding) things. But, the good news is, everyone in the room probably is (or has at some point) experienced these same symptoms. Yoga strips down what we know as social conventions, and rules, and things we try to hide and cover up, and forces you to just be human, and reminds us that there is something common about being human.
3. Self-love: At the conclusion of every class, your instructor reminds you to, “thank yourself for showing up on your mat today”. Sometimes, I have to forgive myself for taking that child’s pose during the flow, because I just couldn’t do it. Sometimes, I have to forgive myself for falling off the block while trying to balance in tree. Sometimes, I have to forgive myself for not hitting full splits today (because I am afraid I might tear something). As with anything, showing up is the hardest part, and there is nothing more fulfilling than walking out of the yoga studio, sometimes with shaky legs and damp hair, knowing you accomplished something big. Nothing worth doing is ever easy, and I have to commend myself for sticking to my schedule, and showing up.
4. Perspective: My favorite Sanskirt term is “satya”, which means “non judgementalism”; it’s about seeing the world through an unbiased, unemotional, unfiltered lens. So many times, our perceptions of people and their actions and events are jaded by our previous experiences, or our misconceptions, or our judgements, and yoga stresses the importance of observing life as is. There are plenty of times I enter into my yoga class, fired up about some parent e-mail I just received, or about that friend who ditched me or that bill I need to pay, and I leave with perspective: that parent is probably projecting their ‘child rearing failures’ on me, that friend could just be overwhelmed, and I can’t worry about that bill until tomorrow morning, and suddenly, my life isn’t actually that bad.
5. Healthy competitiveness: Being on an extremely competitive dance team, I was always trying to one-up and out do everyone else. I had to be the fastest runner, the longest turner, the highest jumper, and sometimes, that competition gets a little too intense, and causes some problems. But, yoga has taught me how to have healthy competition. There is a balance to strike between pushing yourself to make yourself better, and pushing yourself just too hard; one of my favorite instructors once said, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. While it is almost impossible to not pay attention to your neighbor, I have learned how to funnel my competitiveness into productive energy. It looks really cool and impressive when you can do hand-stand-into-chatarunga, and the competitive-side of me wants to do that every time for the attention, but the yogi side of me knows that perhaps I went on a taxing run yesterday, and today, I might need more rest, and lotus pose looks really cool, but my legs might just be too long for that, and it might be something I am physically never able to conquer.
6. Decreased anxiety: If I were to ever receive a mental disorder diagnosis, it would definitely be for anxiety. My life is a mess, and I am an anxious wreck 99% of the time. My room mates MAKE me go to yoga every Saturday morning, because they can sense it when I don’t go. There is just something about having sixty minutes to yourself, where your only obligations could be to just breathe. It’s always a nice break from the outside world, and there really is something about the mind-body-breath connection that eliminates anxiety and stress. Whenever I find myself stuck in traffic, or in a contentious situation, or just feeling myself getting tired, I revert back to my breathing, and suddenly, the world doesn’t seem so stressful, and I can actually handle way more than I anticipated.
7. The right amount of selfishness: Of course, we should not be selfish. The connotation of the word ‘selfish’ is negative, and we ascribe the term for times when we witness others lacking consideration for others. My philosophy is that I should never do anything that impedes on someone else’s existence. Something like, splaying my mat in the middle of the room, so no one can practice in front or behind me, is probably impeding on someone else’s existence. Wearing really smelly, pungent perfume to yoga is probably impeding on someone else’s existence. Talking and giggling during class is probably impeding on someone else’s existence. But, there are certain aspects of yoga that are, by definition, selfish, but completely appropriate. For example, I block out Monday nights and Saturday mornings for yoga, which is technically selfish, because I am doing it for myself, but that’s not impacting anyone else. I might want to scoot my mat closer to the wall so that I can practice my goal of reaching hand stand, but as long as I am not forcing anyone out of the space, I am practicing appropriate selfishness. And, perhaps I really want to do lion’s breath during my wheel; that’s technically selfish, because I want to do that for myself, but as long as I am not breathing nasty periodontal breath at someone else, it is acceptable, and completely welcome in this environment.
8. Alignment: Yoga actually gets harder the more you do it, because you learn to pull up in your postures, engage your muscles, and not sit into your joints. Yoga has taught me alignment both in the physical sense, and also the mental sense. As it turns out, the slightest changes make the largest impact. We have this false narrative in our society that in order to make a change, I have to do something really drastic and really dramatic. Like, if I want to be a ‘good’ person, I need to quit my job immediately, fly to Africa, and save the starving children. And, then ultimately what happens is, the change seems so big, and like so much work and too scary that we end up just doing nothing.
But, yoga teaches that small changes will inevitably lead to larger shifts. Each breath that I take during splits will incrementally get me closer, and eventually, I will gain more flexibility, but that does not happen in just one class. I might only be able to do five chatarungas today, but next class, hopefully I can do six, and eventually, complete an entire class. I go into every yoga class with a small, but meaningful change in mind: today, I am going to look up instead of down in all my postures; today, I am going to suck my lower belly in; today, I am going to flip over my toes. It is through these small, incremental changes that I am eventually able to master poses. And, that same notion of alignment is true in my life. I may want to be a highly effective teacher one day, but that will only happen by mastering the small categories in between: assessment, classroom management, professionalism. I may want to strengthen my relationship with my family, but that might only happen when I take my sister to lunch one day, offer to mow my mom’s lawn, call my brother on a random Saturday. I may want to become a more considerate person, but that might only occur through small changes, such as making sure I clean up after myself, refraining from slamming doors, using my blinker when I drive. Small things lead to big changes.
9. Hard work, dedication, and strength: I would not say I have always ‘loved’ yoga; I remember dreading yoga classes in high school, because my muscles were always in so much pain, and the class seemed to drag on forever and forever. Just like runners, basketball players, offensive linemen, yogis have a certain kind of physique. For someone who is ADHD, I love yoga, because each class is different, and you never know what you are going to get. You may do standing poses for 55 minutes, and save the last five minutes for stretching. That’s always a great calf workout. The class may be dedicated to core, and you may do more planks, side planks, and boats than you ever wished. That’s great for your abs. And, you may take a class that is strictly centered on a mental cleanse, and everything you do is about holding long postures and training yourself to not think. That’s great for your mind. There are PLENTY of times that I feel like my arms are going to fall off, my knee is going to buckle under me, and my foot is cramping. But, the class is only 60 minutes, and at the end of those 60 minutes, and my two minutes of savasana, my body usually bounces right back into normal functioning.
10. Community: I have never met more of an encouraging group of people. I think it’s the nature of yoga, and the people it draws. There is an unspoken bond between yogi’s, and I am never surprised when I find out the people I like best were once instructors or I run into them in my classes.
Yoga is life changing.