My six weeks of daily yoga practice ended last week. By the end of it, many people have asked how it went, did I see changes, would I recommend it, etc. I tell them without equivocation that they should practice yoga.
The reasons I recommend it are not because of any physical gains one might experience. While one will undoubtedly benefit from increased strength, flexibility and overall alignment, each physical lesson is matched by a subtle and important mental lesson. These changes — affecting mood, perception, and focus — are the gains I’m most happy to share and recommend.
One of the interesting features of yoga is that it offers the opportunity to challenge yourself to the degree that you wish. It is an extremely personal practice in this way: each person is responsible for finding their own level of difficulty that challenges them without causing injury. To find a suitable level of difficulty — the edge of each pose — requires physical awareness, making confident decisions about your limitations, and adjusting to your unique situation. Diet, stress and sleep ensure that no two days will be exactly the same, so a yogi practices “tuning” in to meet each situation with a unique approach.
Awareness we apply towards the body can also be applied to the mind. When you sit in stillness you can observe your mind and its unique state in a given moment. How enthusiastic, attentive, pre-occupied, curious, anxious, energetic am I feeling at this moment? What steps do I need to take, what adjustments and decisions should I make, now that I have this information? This dialogue connecting awareness and action has helped me make better decisions and made me happier overall. While I still approach each day giving my best, I know that each day offers unique challenges and that I need to adjust my actions & expectations for the unique circumstances of the situation.
Forward, backward, left and right. Deepen and lengthen. During practice we simultaneously activate complementary muscle areas to find a static posture. When some areas (like our core muscles) are weak, we lose balance or we over-rely on other areas (back, arms) to prop us up. Achieving balance is a core principle in yoga and requires strengthening weaker muscles, regions we haven’t paid enough attention to.
This same philosophy can be applied to how we spend our time. Work & play, being social & being alone, mental & physical activities — each one of us balances these activities to achieve a livable state. Due to yoga, or perhaps just a consequence of becoming older, I feel like I’m paying more attention to how my activities are balanced, and dedicating time to areas I’ve neglected.
Being upside down
Inversions — headstand, handstands, shoulder stands — are part of advanced yoga practice. These poses can be challenging if, like me, you’re not very comfortable being upside down. I never did cartwheels as a kid, still don’t, and I still can’t execute a dive into the swimming pool. Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines in a safe environment like a yoga studio.
One thing I’ve learned about inverting is that it requires a mental commitment: no amount of calm breathing can take you where you need to go. The posture requires a motion forward, a powerful upward spring of your step. I’ve learned that you can’t half ass it: weak attempts brought me back to the earth, feet landing with a dull thud, feeling safe but not satisfied in that safety.
Headstands provide a final valuable lesson in approaching life decisions with force and momentum. Once you decide to take action, don’t waiver. Focus on the end state and deliver. The only way to ruin a pose or action is to mentally defeat it before you’ve started.
Newly minted yogi
Yoga has taught me about my mental life & capabilities; it’s shown me patterns and habits as well as illustrated the potential within every one of us, once mental energy is directed away from unconscious habits.
I wouldn’t say that my life has forever and dramatically changed. However, there has been some shift, and I like the direction that things are going. I want to pronounce my continuing commitment: to rise every morning early, keep up a fitness routine, and start a home yoga practice. I believe that these will continue to help me achieve awareness, balance, courage and peace.