I arrived at yoga partially in the same way and around the same time as I arrived at therapy: out of desperation after having hit a kind of rock bottom, and after having frenetically tried anything else to fix me – new clothes, potted houseplants, posters in frames, paintings, trips home.
I had entertained the idea of yoga (and therapy) for years, and those closest to me had told me to consider each, but I stubbornly had to come to them on my own time. I’d experienced a number of breakdowns over my teenage and college years that had left me flailing and frantic, scrambling for something to make me okay, but I simply had not hit my rock bottom yet.
To boot, exercise, for me, had always been another impossible pursuit of perfection, executed out of self-loathing and quit quickly for lack of some expected outcome. Before I found myself ready to try yoga, I treated yoga – from my very cautionary, self-protective, fear-driven distance – in the same way.
But finally, at the time of my darkest and deepest breakdown, it was time to deal with myself. To do something by myself, with myself and for myself. A year later, I consider the first day I anxiously stepped into my yoga studio one of the true quantum shifts of my life.
It may sound ridiculous to have needed to muster up courage to go to a yoga class. But for me, it wasn’t so much about showing up at a studio for an hour, rolling out a mat and throwing my limbs around. It was about what it represented: a willingness to deal with my shit head on, a choice to no longer live in denial that I was “fine”; an admittance that I couldn’t fix myself alone, that it was okay to need help; and above all, a belief that maybe I did indeed deserve love, that maybe I was worthy of kindness and warmth and respect from myself and others.
It’s a terrible realization, once you know that you can’t fix yourself outwardly, that all the work you have to do starts from the inside. It’s absolutely foreboding. But if or when you find yourself ready, you may find as I did that yoga will give back to you everything and more that you sincerely put in. What yoga has taught me has changed me in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible a year ago. What yoga continues to teach me every day is that there is always room to do better and be better.
Here are 10 major ways that a year of yoga has changed my life and might also change yours:
1. Love and kindness.
Kindness might be at the very core of love, because kindness works such that you have to first give yourself the amount of kindness that you want to be able to share with others.
Yoga requires a lot of kindness – a willingness to be gentle with yourself and react with compassion to your body’s limitations. There will always be a deeper variation of the pose that you’re in, some far-off goal to strive for, but knowing where you are today and accepting that demonstrates a kind of self-love that we don’t often give ourselves.
Sometimes we’re tempted to push ourselves beyond the place that we’ve naturally reached. We want to be further ahead on our journey, whether that be for status, affirmation of our self-worth or something else entirely. But each time we try to be something that we’re not, we act out of fear and insecurity and lose a little bit of that love and kindness.
Thus, kindness – and love – might just come down to gentle, non-judging acceptance – of who we are and who we are not, and of who others are and who they are not, and allowing it all to be right and okay.
2. Getting outside of your comfort zone.
It’s terrifyingly easy for us to get complacent. Sometimes we don’t even realize that it’s happened to us until a major milestone hits – a birthday or a holiday or the mark of a new year – and we find ourselves terrified at the prospect that perhaps we’ve been running in place as time has been passing.
I believe the best way to combat complacency is to work every day at pushing your edge and getting outside your comfort zone. It’s only in the space where we allow ourselves the opportunity to make mistakes that learning truly happens, and learning gives us a sense of productivity, accomplishment and purpose like few other things can.
I didn’t understand why people referred to yoga as a “practice” until I started doing it. It’s because yoga will push you outside of your comfort zone and teach you something about yourself each time you show up at the mat. It is the daily opportunity to strengthen your understanding of yourself and the world around you while at the same time recognizing that you will never have a full understanding of either. In this way, yoga teaches you to value the journey – the process of the work – over any outcome or result. The beauty of yoga – and the beauty of life – is in the “practice,” not the product.
3. Persistence and integrity.
In yoga, we talk a lot about this thing called our “edge.” It is the place at which we’ve gone as far as we can, for today. But we often have to ask ourselves if we’ve truly, honestly reached that place or whether we’re imposing a false limitation on ourselves.
I believe adamantly that your mind will try to give up long before your body, that your mind will talk to you and tell you that it’s met its edge when in reality your body can keep going. I’ve seen proof of this, however extreme: one of my yoga teachers once had to hold a forearm plank for 30 minutes in her teacher training; a friend’s uncle has completed 100-mile runs.
Yoga requires a lot of personal integrity. No one else is pushing you to be honest with yourself – whether you’re being truthful is all on you. Have you really gone as far as you can? Have you truly met your edge?
“This is where your yoga starts,” is what some of my teachers will say when we’ve been holding a difficult pose for so long that everything has started to shake and sweat’s dripping into our eyes. “Your yoga is not the pose you find easy; it’s where you meet your edge.” The same is true of life. Challenges show us who we really are and whether we’re willing to persist. In the face of adversity, does your mind give out long before your body must? Can you cultivate resilience through your own integrity, through your own honesty about what you can in fact handle?
4. Undoing control.
There’s a lot about our life that we are in control of, but there’s also a lot that we’re not. Our very fast-paced society advocates autonomy and free will, pushing us all to think that if we attempt to nudge our lives into a certain direction, we’ll be happy. What our society tends not to encourage is that we sit back and see how things go. We very rarely hear or give the advice, “Let’s just see what happens.”
We like to “do” much more than just “be.” Control – the “doing” – provides us with the semblance of an idea that we just might be able to get our shit together. Control – the “doing” – provides us with a filled up feeling of safety and comfort. But often times, what control provides us is also transparent and thin, because it’s a film we use to protect ourselves.
Yoga is, if nothing else, a breathing practice in which you inhale what you need and exhale what you can let go. With each conscious exhale, with everything you let slip out of you that you’ve been holding onto, you loosen the tightly wound coils of tension inside you and slide into a freer, clearer state. It lets you simply “be.” When we stop trying so much to “do” and just allow ourselves to “be,” we liberate ourselves from the constant need to be in control – and we allow others to just “be” too.
5. A powerful sense of gratitude.
If there’s magic in the world, I think it’s born out of gratitude. But how do we live more gratefully?
Gratitude comes entirely from choosing awareness, and we make ourselves “aware” when we intentionally and consciously slow down. Slowing down is the only way to truly stop and look and appreciate.
I’ve never experienced something that forces me to slow down and take note of what is happening around me and inside me like yoga. In spending an hour a day consciously paying attention to the so simple act of breathing, I allow myself to experience a sense of awe at how these bodies of ours work so effortlessly and without asking anything of us. In spending an hour a day consciously paying attention to what my body is able to tolerate, I allow myself to experience a sense of awe at how strong and resilient humans really are. And when I roll up my mat and leave for the day, I find myself more able to stop and look and appreciate in the world outside my studio as well.
6. A state of calm.
There are few things as healing and cleansing and calming to our bodies as breathing. When we breathe deeply and fully, we tell our body that everything is okay.
Our bodies are, for the most part, in a constant state of being revved up. Our “fight or flight” response is always ready to go when need be, keeping the sympathetic nervous system buzzing and alert. That’s not inherently bad; it protects us. But there are also times when we need to slow down. The only thing that can truly slow us down is tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers a more relaxed and calm state and is achieved only by slow and conscious breathing.
Yoga, particularly of the restorative or yin style, nearly puts you to sleep because it does just that. By holding gentle poses for more than five minutes while you simply breathe, your body learns that it’s safe and okay to slow down. When I leave these classes, I may as well be floating.
7. Staying in the present.
There’s a lot of value in the here and now – when we stay present, we give ourselves and others our full attention, and when we work to focus our attention on the very thing in front of us and nothing else, we teach ourselves to be more present. But for many of us, we’re often in some far off state, worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. Especially in our world today, where distractions are always at our fingertips, it’s genuinely difficult to be entirely in the now and give true presence to anything. It’s rare that we put ourselves in a position where we have no choice but to live solely in the now.
Yoga can be something that gives you no choice but to be solely in the present moment. Before I stepped into my studio, I wrongly assumed that yoga was “easy,” or at the very least “relaxing.” The first time I was made to do a sequence of planks to burpees to squats (and all with free weights) in a 105 degree room, I realized I was most decidedly wrong. This shit is not relaxing; it might qualify as murder. But the thing about being challenged in this way is that your attentional resources are focused so heavily on the single task in front of you that you just can’t be anywhere else but the now. Hold a forearm plank for a minute while a legitimate pool of sweat is forming on your mat beneath you and try and tell me that you’re thinking about that email you need to send for work.
8. Openness and vulnerability.
Yoga can be extremely confrontational. For the longest time, I sat on my mat as everyone around me did Camel pose, a deep heart opener. When I tried it, something inside me would scream to get out of it, and as I snapped back up, my head would spin and I’d be hit with a wave of nausea.
It’s hard to open ourselves up. Many of us are naturally always very guarded, or at the very least aware of how others are perceiving us and adjusting our behaviors accordingly. We tend to shy away from vulnerability rather than lean into the discomfort of it. We tend to avoid that sense of confrontation, at least until we’re ready.
Yoga can help us to be ready. It challenges you every day to meet fear with love, to split yourself open just a bit more. It makes you take a hard look at the break lines scarred across your heart and gently accept that they’re a part of your being rather than hiding them away. Over time, yoga quietly pushes you to be able to open your heart. And when we allow ourselves to first be open and vulnerable with ourselves, we give ourselves the space to then be open and vulnerable with others – the basis of true, meaningful connection.
9. Strength and flexibility.
I don’t know that it’s ideal to worship our physicality, because at the very root of this kind of worship is a fear of not being good enough, of being imperfect – and we’ll always be able to find imperfections when we seek them – but it’s also true that your body will start to change from doing yoga. If you’re in it for the right reasons, the abs and the fact that you can now do a split will just be pleasant side effects.
The most interesting thing about the physical strength and flexibility that you’ll acquire from yoga though, to me, are the ways in which these manifest mentally. Increased strength seems to generate more confidence and improved levels of self-esteem, all around contributing to a better sense of self-worth. Increased flexibility allows for a respect and acceptance of the spontaneity of life and all of the constant change, expected or otherwise, always going on around us.
We tend to not realize it, but every day we each do something that’s entirely and irrefutably authentic: breathe. After all, there are few things as truly authentic to each of us as our breathing – we do it day in and day out, without ever giving much notice to it or questioning whether we’re doing it correctly.
But what about all the other parts of us? What about the kind of “authentic” that we’re more conscious of wanting to be?
I think it’s natural that we adjust our actions to the social situations in which we find ourselves, but when we start to wear too many masks, we lose the ability to know who we really are. It’s as we let go of who we think we’re supposed to be and who we’d like to be and gently accept who we are that we become closer and closer to our authentic selves. As we spend time with ourselves on the mat every day, giving ourselves love and attention and compassion in ways we generally reserve for others, we embrace and accept who we truly are. We’re not perfect, nor do we want to be. Those around us are not perfect, nor do we want them to be. We’re learning to embrace being honest and candid and sincere, and that feels better.