I believe one of the best ways to experience the connection of mind, body and soul is through a regular yoga practice. I’ve been practicing for about 3 1/2 years now and it has brought so much good into my life in so many different ways. It’s one of the few interests I have that has grown significantly; my other hobbies tend to come and go depending on my mood, the season, etc. I think it’s because yoga has always been there for me and is more than just a hobby; it has become a real part of my life. No matter how I’m feeling, yoga can make me feel just a little bit better and can always bring me back to a place of peace. With yoga, I don’t feel pressure, guilt, stress, embarrassment or insecurity. When so many other aspects of life can bring these feelings out, I can turn to yoga and ground myself once again.
Yoga is such an important and underrated practice that most people would benefit from but too many don’t even try for their own various (and sometimes silly) reasons. But even starting and maintaining a very basic practice can provide immense benefits, and frankly, make all of us better people. It doesn’t matter how young, old, weak, muscular, obese, athletic, tall or short you are; EVERYONE can practice yoga. My goal with this blog post isn’t to spew out the same ol’ bullet-point list of “the benefits of yoga.” My goal is to communicate my journey with yoga and hopefully provide some encouragement to at least try this wonderful practice if you haven’t done so already.
What Yoga Is Not
This is the only bullet-point list I am going to make, and it’s for a good reason! It’s important to acknowledge what yoga isn’t, because these are very common and unfair misconceptions. I wanted to start here, because once we get past these myths, we can move on to what yoga really is and why it’s so awesome.
Yoga is NOT:
- A religion, cult or “the devil”
- Just about stretching or being flexible
- A bunch of poses
- Competitive (at least it shouldn’t be)
- Something you ever master
- Just for hippies…or women (not being sexist, there are truly not enough male yogis)
- Wearing a sports bra, tight yoga pants, a messy bun and/or carrying a Starbucks latte while telling everyone you come across that you “do” yoga
Okay, that last bullet was admittedly a semi-rant, but I digress…
While I have practiced consistently since December of 2012, that wasn’t the first time I tried yoga. I sporadically attended classes about once a year (yes, you read that right) for about 8 years prior. Nobody else I knew wanted to go to a class with me, and I was very timid in new situations at the time. I was also very out of shape. So unsurprisingly, I’d go to a class by myself, get nervous, be unable to keep up or know what the hell I was doing, feel insecure and not return again. I had an interest in yoga, but looking back, I can see that I wasn’t ready for it. It wasn’t until yoga was offered at my current place of work that I completely changed the way I see it.
When yoga was first offered at my firm in December 2012, I was ecstatic. I could finally practice on a consistent basis, and for free! There were both flow classes and deep stretch classes, and I took advantage of both. I was still out of shape, but the atmosphere in these classes wasn’t intimidating, especially because it was with coworkers who I already knew and liked. I remember the first class I attended; I excitedly rolled out my brand new mat, sat up straight, had a dorky smile on my face…and then proceeded to sweat like crazy and wanted to die from exhaustion. It wasn’t easy, but I was determined to keep going back. I felt committed to it this time, like I was being pulled toward it. The instructors were supportive and encouraging, so I attended as much as I could. This would eventually mean five days a week.
Building a Yoga Practice
Attending yoga classes five days a week may sound like a lot to some, and it was a lot for me at first. But yoga soon grew from a way to exercise to an important part of my day. I am not a morning person, but twice a week I get my ass out of bed to attend yoga before work. This is one of the few activities that I will voluntarily wake up early for. And now I actually get frustrated when I can’t go to a lunchtime yoga class for some reason, whereas before it felt more like a chore. If I don’t practice for a couple of days, I feel it in my muscles and even get a little agitated. As a result, my yoga mat is now a regular addition to my suitcase when traveling for three or more days. I’ve discovered that there is almost always a place to practice wherever you are. In the last year, I’ve started practicing seven days a week. If I’m not attending a class at the yoga studio near my house, then I’m practicing at home, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. I’ve even taught yoga to family and close friends before, which is something I really enjoy and hope to do more of in the future.
What I’ve found to be most amazing is the physical, mental and spiritual transformation I’ve seen in myself over these last 3 1/2 years. Looking back to when I first started, I saw yoga as a benefit mostly on a physical level. I just wanted to get in shape. But it became so much more than that in ways I didn’t expect. It has carried over into so many aspects of my daily life, including my diet, my relationships and my view of the world.
Yoga for the Mind
I thought yoga would provide the most good to my body, but it turned out to benefit my mind the most. If you’re a regular reader, you know by now the mental stuff I’ve dealt with (examples here and here). I wish I could say that yoga cured me of these issues, but I’d be lying (because there isn’t a cure). However, I truly believe I could have been a lot worse off if I didn’t have yoga in my life during that time. Because even when I felt terrible, I would still drag myself to a class, knowing it would be good for me. And it always was. For one hour a day, I didn’t feel overwhelmingly depressed or anxious, and that was better than 0 hours a day. And since meditation goes hand in hand with yoga, I’ve been able to develop both practices simultaneously. As a result, I’ve found an increasing sense of balance, focus, happiness and peace. It has helped me find a love for myself that I never had before, because I feel like my best self when I’m practicing, and that’s the self I want everyone else to see.
Yoga for the Body
Yoga has improved my mental state immensely, but I don’t want to downplay what it has also done for my body. For one, I used to have asthma. Then I learned how to properly breathe and control my breath and my asthma is no longer an issue. Yoga has also increased my muscle strength and flexibility, improved my posture and balance and decreased back pain and leg stiffness from having a desk job. I also have defined ab, arm and leg muscles now, woohoo! Several poses were very difficult for me when I first started practicing, but the more I practiced, the easier those poses became. My hamstrings are still tight, and wide-legged straddles are the bane of my existence, but in those cases I just accept that I’m not ready for certain poses yet and keep trying. I will say it is quite empowering when you finally achieve a pose you’ve been working toward, and it always makes me want to work harder to try other poses. I’ve learned to listen to my body, practice at a pace that works for me and push myself just enough to not force a pose, but enough to grow. As a result, I’m in better physical shape now than I ever have been before.
Yoga for the Soul
The most unexpected advantage of yoga for me was finding my spirituality. I was raised Roman Catholic, and to be honest, I’m just not a fan of organized religion. I’m very liberal and don’t agree with many religious concepts, but to each their own. I’m not here to judge. But because of how much I despised religion, I discounted the idea of spirituality for a long time. Then I realized that spirituality doesn’t equal religion; in fact, it’s so much more than that. Spirituality is a very personal experience, and for me, it represents exploration and my connection with the universe. I’ve become more self-aware in both body and mind, I’ve learned to accept things for what they are and leave my ego at the door, and I’ve developed more compassion, acceptance and respect for others. I can use my yoga breath whenever things get stressful to center myself. I notice when my mind wanders, both on and off the mat. I’m very conscious of the fact that I could die at any time, and that what matters most is how I use my time on this planet now, not what happens afterwards. I’ve witnessed great progress in myself and am in a wonderful place mentally, and I believe the meditative nature of yoga has a lot to do with that.
What Yoga Is
The most wonderful thing about yoga is that it’s different for everyone, and there’s not one right way to do it. Your version of yoga can just be breathing or staying in child’s pose, or something more intense and physical. Regardless of how you want to practice, just start practicing consistently and you’ll see and feel results. Don’t be afraid to start, because everyone was a beginner at some point, and soon enough you won’t be a beginner anymore. I promised I would only make one bullet-point list, but I lied…I’m making one more as a conclusion to this post, and one last effort to sway you into giving yoga a try (hopefully I’m successful!)
- Staying present in the moment
- Exploration and curiosity
- Finding a sense of peace and serenity
- Letting go of the ego and distractions
- Acceptance of what is and what isn’t
- Connecting with yourself and others
- Building strength and awareness
- A great basis for a healthy lifestyle
- A physical, mental and spiritual practice
Special thanks to my friend and yoga instructor, Kelly, for being my personal photographer!
So who is ready to give yoga a try? If you already practice, what do you love about yoga? Leave a comment!