Let’s talk yoga.
We’ve all heard of it, many of us have attended a class or two to get in shape, but how many people are truly using yoga as a tool for personal growth and spiritual development?
I began my practice in February 2011 after a health scare forced me to realize that I had to start taking better care of my body if I wanted to live a full, vibrant life. I knew that I had to be the one to take responsibility for my own wellbeing because no one was going to do it for me.
Suffering from fairly severe social anxiety at the time, the thought of walking into a yoga class by myself for the first time absolutely terrified me. Instead of letting that stop me and the progress I wanted to make, I went on Amazon.com and ordered myself a mat, a block, a strap, and two beginners DVD’s. Having been a dancer and cheerleader as a teenager, yoga seemed to fit well into my idea of fun fitness and I positively anticipated their arrival, excited to get started.
I can vividly remember the moment my gear first arrived. I was living in my one bedroom apartment in Gainesville, Florida while attending college at the University of Florida. I immediately moved my living room coffee table against the wall and pulled my couch back to give myself enough room, then I unrolled my pink yoga mat for the first time. I had no idea what the block and strap were for, but they’d been recommended on Amazon so I put them next to me as I popped in the DVD.
My first session was brutal. I could hardly hold myself up in downward dog, my balance was awful, and I couldn’t get the damn strap to stay on my foot at I worked on stretching my hamstrings. I remember crying as I laid on my back in savasana where I attempted to meditate for the first time. Feeling defeated, I put my gear in the closet and didn’t pull it out for another month.
One morning I got a burst of inspiration and pulled out my stuff again to give it another try. I did the full 20 minute series and subsequent 5 minute meditation every morning for a week and I began to notice an improvement in not only my physical strength and flexibility, but also a inner calm that I had never really experienced before. Those little things that used to bother me were not as signifiant anymore. I wasn’t as anxious and had more energy as I moved throughout my day.
Six months later, I started attending yoga classes once a week while practicing by myself each morning. During this time I would meditate shortly after each practice and also began meditating for 10-20 minutes a couple of times a week. The improvements kept coming. In June 2012 I found myself on a beautiful mountain in Portugal attending an intensive 100-hour yoga teacher training course. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to teach yoga, but I knew if nothing else, it would be good for my own practice. Over the next few years I dropped in an out of my routine practice, getting caught up in the so many other things that call for our attention in life, but in the back of my mind I always knew that yoga was my answer.
Over four years later since that fateful day when I decided to start taking care of myself again, yoga and meditation are both a part of my daily routine. I make time and space, both morning and night ideally, to keep my practice strong. I’ve made my yoga practice a priority in my life because I’ve seen what happens to my body and emotions when I don’t. The body aches return, depression begins to creep in, and my creativity drops. I become less inspired to be an active participant in life and my desire to serve the world becomes nearly nonexistent at times. If I go a day or more without practicing both yoga and meditation, I become an entirely different version of myself, one that I prefer to not experience if I can help it. My worries increase, my patience is short, and I cry on a whim.
I don’t let my mobile lifestyle affect my practice— I carry my travel mat with me and roll it out wherever I can. I’ve practiced in airports, in parks, and in the tiniest of rooms with my hands and feet hitting the walls nearly every time I move. I use what could be seen as “problems” preventing my from practicing as opportunities to explore another part of myself.
What I’ve learned on my yoga journey is that what happens on the mat is a microcosm of what happens in my life when I step off of the mat. It’s my space to move away from the never-ending calls for my attention of the external world and turn inside. It’s the place I go to observe my Self.
How do I react when I feel tension? Do I resist or do I soften?
How do I respond when facing a pose that is outside of my comfort zone? Do I pull away scared and anxious or do I breathe my way into it, ready to expand my boundaries?
Where do I go in my mind when there are other people around? Do I worry about what they’re thinking of me and my body, or do I hold the sacred space for myself?
What happens to my balance when my thoughts wander from the present moment into past regrets or future worries? Do I get irritated with myself when I slip up, or do I take a deep breath and try again?
How do I treat myself when my strength is less than it was yesterday? Do I shame myself for being less flexible on one side of my body or do I accept the practice as it is for that day?
Do I honor my personal practice every day by showing up fully wherever I’m at in that particular moment, or do I dis-grace myself by comparing myself to others or to how I did yesterday?
Each practice is going to be different and that’s perfectly ok. It’s not about the perfection of the posture, it’s about the progress of your practice, which can be measured in so many different ways. It’s how you choose to look at it that makes the difference.
“Expanding my comfort zone,” “having full presence,” “breathing through the transitions,” “honoring the space,” and “accepting what is” are each lessons that I’ve learned from my time on the mat. Every time I take out my yoga mat, put on music, and take my first deep breath as I move into position to begin— whether I’m excited to be there or dragging myself along— I come away filled with more clarity about my purpose, more love for my body, and more appreciation for life itself.