Yoga is so much more than a practice in strength and flexibility. Here’s what it has taught me about life.
Yoga Teaches Me To Be Here
In one of my first yoga classes, the teacher began by guiding us to focus on our breath. She told us to let go of our journey to the mat and any thoughts of what was to come. I was struck by the unfamiliarity of this. It made such a change to be present and to drop into feeling rather than thinking. And it felt great. I gave myself permission to stop worrying and just be there in the moment. It was a revelation.
Being present isn’t easy, though. Mindfulness is a skill and on the mat is where I practice purposefully bringing myself into the present moment and into my body. The advantages are huge. The more present I am, the less stressed I feel and the more I enjoy my life. (Read more in 6 Techniques to Staying Present.)
Yoga Teaches Me To Surrender Control
I approach pretty much everything in life with an agenda. My motivation for doing what I do comes with a desired outcome. I do the same with my yoga practice. I set goals, things I want to get from the time spent on my mat. But yoga has a way of giving me what I need, not what I want.
A while ago I decided to focus on developing my flexibility. I wanted to be able to do full splits. Yet three days in I realized it wasn’t working. Every practice I was finding myself drawn back to stronger, more stabilizing asanas. When I tried to increase my flexibility, I got nowhere and I knew there was no point in forcing it. My body wasn’t ready for more flexibility without first building more strength and yoga wouldn’t let me ignore that. (Learn more in Yin Yoga: There's Power in Surrender.)
I’ve learned to let my yoga be what it is rather than trying to control the outcome. I still set out with intentions and I still have things that I want to work toward. Now I try, instead, to commit to the practice and let go of attachment to the results. This is a valuable life lesson. If you can do the work for the sake of doing the work, not for the reward of the outcome, the journey becomes a gift in its own right.
Yoga Teaches Me To Get Curious
Like many people, I found that developing my yoga practice challenged me to face my self-limiting beliefs. Tripod headstand, for example, was an asana that I couldn’t do. Then one day I realized that the reason I couldn’t do it was because I’d never tried. When I reflected on why that was, I discovered that I had never tried because I believed I couldn’t do it. I was being held back entirely by my own mind. (Read more in How to Open Your Mind.)
That day when the teacher gave the option to come into tripod headstand, I changed my usual “no” to a “let’s see.” I was surprised when I got into tripod on my first go. I’m not saying this always happens the first time you try anything, but it is true that you don’t know until you try. If you catch yourself assuming you can’t do something, “Let’s see how far I can go,” is a great alternative mantra, on and off the mat. When you change your certainty to curiosity, suddenly there’s a huge potential for growth.
Yoga Teaches Me To Be Struggle Free
I was once in a yoga class where the teacher uttered an instruction which changed my approach to my yoga and my life. She’d just brought us, for what felt like the 18th time, into dolphin pose, one of my least favorite asanas. My shoulders were protesting and I was silently cursing her as I tried to maintain my alignment and press the floor away, all while continuing to breathe. Right at the point I was about to collapse into child’s pose I heard her say, “Let yourself be struggle-free.”
And just like that, everything changed. Physically, I was still holding the pose, but my mindset adjusted. It stopped being a fight. I found a sweetness and a surrender in the midst of effort I was exerting. Now I routinely search for that sweetness whenever things get challenging in yoga and in life. I remind myself to let myself be struggle-free. It works surprisingly well.
Yoga Teaches Me Not To Take Myself Too Seriously
There are so many times that yoga seems to catch me taking myself too seriously. This has a habit of knocking me off balance. Wobbling out of dancer’s pose because the still point I was focusing on turned out to be a spider on the wall. Being thrilled to get my foot behind my head for the first time, only to realize it's stuck there. Getting the giggles because I caught someone’s eye while lying in the delightful, but undeniably inelegant happy baby pose with my legs in the air.
For me, these moments aren’t yoga fails. They are the yoga lessons. The bits that remind us not to get too attached because, really, it doesn’t matter how long you can hold your handstand or how deeply you can bend. This playfulness of approach has been one of my favorite lessons because what matters is finding joy in your approach to life. And learning to laugh at yourself is a great place to start.