Whether following a TV show or DVD series at home, trudging to classes in a gym, or stretching out in an open-air studio overlooking a Thai beach, I’ve practiced yoga in one way or another for about 15 years. I’ve had periods of time when I’ve kept up an almost daily practice, and long stretches when I didn’t keep a steady practice at all. But I always come back to it.
I’m not alone. Yoga is a huge, huge industry around the world (like, we’re talking tens of billions of dollars in the US alone). It’s important to note that what we typically think of as yoga (the poses) is just one part of a deeper spiritual practice rooted in Hinduism that offers a path to enlightenment. But, for better or worse, it’s mostly the physical practice that Westerners focus on (myself included).
As many people will note, a regular yoga practice can provide so many benefits in your life. By way of introduction into this topic, I’m going to get personal. Here’s what the practice means to me.
Yoga is a Challenge
Yoga is difficult, physically. But there’s also a mental challenge. “Yoga is a practice that requires both effort and letting go of the results of that effort” (Kate Potter, Namaste Yoga). It’s counter-intuitive as you’re struggling, sometimes with very little joy, to hold your body in postures it wouldn’t naturally assume. Why the effort if it doesn’t matter what happens? But I think the detachment is about finding pleasure in the effort–doing for the sake of doing–which helps you put your whole self into it. There’s no “finally, I have mastered this.” It’s a continual effort to improve physically and spiritually, where the goal is just to do.
And with that steady effort, there are breakthroughs. For many years, I was mystified by “crane” pose. With your body scrunched into a ball, you lean your knees onto the backs of the arms and put the weight forward, balancing on just the hands. I would always tip back, slide off my arms, or crash forward. But then one morning, it just worked.
It is also Succor
There are physical rewards–more energy and flexibility, for example. I even feel I look better when I’ve been doing yoga consistently (and if it’s just in my head, I’m fine with that!). There is physical grace in yoga–it highlights beauty in the human form. Of course, sometimes you’re sweating profusely or squished over, revealing the accordion of extra skin in your midsection that you try to deny the existence of. But in many postures, looking down the length of my arms, muscles in impressive relief and my fingertips tickling the air in front of me, I imagine myself weightless like a bird gliding through the air. At those moments, I feel beautiful (stomach rolls and all).
But perhaps even more significant are the mental rewards. Yoga is meditative, with an inward focus on the feeling of the body and the breath. It is an excellent tool in cultivating mindfulness.
And the particular challenge of yoga that asks you to let go of the results gives you freedom just to try, letting go of self-judgement. Self-judgement can be crippling. To move forward and achieve things, we have to let go to of that inner critic and just do the work, even if it means failing sometimes.
That confidence on the mat spills over into the rest of the day. As I balance in tree pose, instructed to feel my muscles as roots grounding me into the Earth, I gain a steadiness that comes off the mat with me–a steadiness that is useful at times when I’m challenged by my kids, my professional life, or current events that worry and upset me.
I’ve had very positive experiences with yoga, both on my own and in group settings. But as its popularity grows, there are some concerns over the integrity of the tradition. There have been instances of abuse at yoga retreats, and some yoga teaching “certifications” are short on qualifications for the instructors. We’ll talk more about how to keep yourself safe as you practice in posts to come.
But when practiced safely, yoga is a powerful tool for physical and mental well-being. Ginny discussed what yoga means to her, here. We want to hear from you! Do you practice yoga? What benefits do you derive from your practice? How do you like to practice–on your own, in a studio, a gym? Share your experiences below!
[Featured Image Attribution: “Buddha at Sunset” by KS on Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0)]