When you think about yoga, what comes to mind? Probably a room full of 20- and 30-something women (and one guy!) in a hip Los Angeles studio doing headstands or twisted into impossibly challenging postures. To most Americans, yoga is simply a trendy form of exercise that focuses on strength and flexibility without the use of gym equipment. But yoga is actually much more than that. Yoga is a spiritual practice that utilizes the body as a vehicle for self-awareness, discovery and transformation. Yes, you can get a great workout from a yoga class, no doubt! But stick around and read some of the life lessons I've garnered from years of practice:
1 | Slow down
In yoga, often the more slowly we work, the more we are able to achieve. When we try to rush into an asana (yoga pose), our muscles will likely be tense and we will probably utilize the improper muscle group to "force" ourselves into the posture. Not only do we make ourselves more prone to injury this way, but we're also not strengthening and stretching the intended areas. If we can slow down and bring mindful awareness to our movements, we will achieve our goals much more efficiently. Same goes for life off the mat — when we rush through tasks or try to multitask, then nothing gets done well, we don't achieve our intended goals and we are more liable to make errors. But if we can slow down and strip away the non-essentials, suddenly we can achieve more without all the stress.
2 | Work from the ground up
When going into a yoga posture, especially standing postures, we work from the ground up. The idea is that if our feet are not firmly planted and steady, then the rest of the body will not be able to support the asana correctly. If we don't have a strong foundation to rely on, the rest of the building will topple. Just like a tree, we need a strong support system to allow ourselves to grow. In life, this means that we need friends, family, mentors and others to help and guide us on our path. We also need healthy coping mechanisms to get through the hard times. You can't expect to achieve lofty goals without the proper supports in place first.
3 | Find balance
Yoga poses involve opposing forces. For example, when using your arms to reach forward, you use your shoulders to pull back. This creates a balance of forces to prevent injury and to further strengthen your muscles. In life, we would be well-served to keep opposing forces in mind while making personal and professional decisions. If I decide to take on 5 new weekly clients, I need to have a plan for how to balance that increased work with more scheduled breaks and improved self-care to sustain the surge in work.
4 | Your strength is in your struggle
The aim of yoga is not to show up to your first class and already be extremely strong and be able to hold challenging postures forever! Your strength comes from your shaking muscles, your wobbling around trying to find center and your holding a posture correctly as long for as you can right now. That builds over time to develop the strength you see in more seasoned yogis. Off the mat, we get stronger by working through the struggles that life seems to be so good at presenting to us. Often, we can feel resentful when life throws us a curve-ball, but we can't expect to be strong individuals without overcoming hardship.
5 | Bend so you don't break
Yoga allows us to improve the flexibility of the body and the mind. The practice challenges our notions of what we are capable of, it tests the edges of our comfort zone and it provides us with a different perspective. Pioneering scientist on the mind/body connection, Dr. Dan Siegel talks about how, as humans we tend to bounce back and forth between the "banks of rigidity and chaos." To illustrate this concept, think about a New Years resolution you've made in the past. Maybe it was something like "I'm going to work out every day for the whole year." You may have gotten to the gym the first couple times, but life gets in the way and then the idea of working out daily flies out the window completely, because you've already messed it up. In this example, you went from rigidity to chaos. The goal of self-growth is to be able to flow somewhere in the middle, in the "stream of flexibility." With a flexible mind, one can have an expectation to live a healthy lifestyle, but when things get in the way, they're able to continue the process and not get discouraged.
6 | Breath is everything
Breath is an anchor to bring you back into the moment; it can bring relief from pain; it can help you release more deeply into a pose. Staying connected to the breath as much as you can (and bringing your awareness back to it when your mind wanders) during your practice will guide you through the more challenging aspects of a sequence and help you savor the more restorative moments. Off the mat, in your daily life, you always have the breath to rely on. It can be your reminder of what is truly important in life (i.e. health, presence, peace) and put your problem or to-do list into perspective. Deep breathing (especially taking a longer exhale than your inhale) also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, signaling your body to feel more calm.
7 | "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." -Haruki Murakami
I've talked about this before, and it's likely to show up again because it is a huge tenet of my psychotherapy work. In yoga, you're going to feel pain and discomfort. Yes, even if you only do restorative yoga or "easy" poses. Why? Because, in yoga, we bring mindful awareness to the sensations of the body on a moment to moment basis and everyone experiences body pain and discomfort from time to time. This is inevitable. But suffering, on the other hand, is not. Suffering occurs when the pain we experience is intensified by the physical or psychological effects of resisting that pain. When the body and mind resist pain, it tenses, creating suffering. If you feel pain in yoga, you may need to adjust the pose to prevent injury — but if you know you're experiencing a normal amount of pain (due to muscles working hard or a deep stretch) simply direct the focus of your breath into that area and try to relax it as much as possible. This will reduce your suffering immensely. In life, the more we resist or try to escape from our unpleasant feelings or difficult life circumstances the more suffering we experience. But if we can lean into our challenging emotions and begin to accept the challenges we are faced with, the more we can live a full, meaningful life.
8 | Everyone is on their own journey
It can be difficult not to compare ourselves to others in a yoga class. Maybe we see that other yogi who looks like they belong on the cover of Yoga Journal, and we begin to doubt ourselves. That voice creeps in and says, "man, why don't I look like that?" Part of a yoga practice is coming to acceptance of where we are on our journey and understanding that there is no "right" or "wrong," "good" or "bad" place to be on that path. Same goes for off the mat — catch yourself when you find the natural tendency to compare yourself to that Facebook friend who seems to always be on vacation or that coworker who is always a step ahead of everyone else. Remember that these people are not "better" or "worse" than you — they have their own struggles, too. Because we all do.
9 | Love yourself as you are
Yes, yoga is about transformation. But it's not about changing yourself because there is something wrong with you that needs to go away forever — it's about evolving over time because that's what we are capable of as human beings. Yoga allows us to transform our suffering into peace. Now, who wouldn't want that? For off the mat, think about areas in your life you'd like to improve, while adopting an attitude of acceptance for where you are with that aspect of your life currently. It can be tough to hold these two seemingly opposing ideas simultaneously because our minds can tend toward black and white thinking, but see if you can stretch the mind. Pun intended!
10 | It's a process
You may look at a gorgeous photo of a young woman on Instagram in an impossibly advanced yoga pose and think, "Wow! That's the reason to do yoga, to get into that kind of shape." This is a normal thought to have. But in the true spirit of yoga, we actually value the process of practicing the ancient tradition, as there really is no such thing as an "end result" in yoga. A yogi doesn't wake up one day and receive their "certificate of yogi-hood" and then never have to practice ever again. Nope! It's a spiritual practice that always has something new to teach you each day you do it. Similarly, in life, there is no "end goal." If we want to have a joyful, peaceful life, we need to find a way to enjoy the process.
I hope you've gained a nugget of wisdom from this post. If you've lost momentum in your yoga practice, I hope this inspires you to pick it back up again. If you've never tried yoga before, I hope this inspires you to take your first class. And if you've seen yoga purely as a form of exercise, I hope this inspires you to dig deeper into your practice and find something new in it. Namaste and happy yoga-ing!
about the author
Hi! I'm Natalie. And my passion is helping people live more peaceful, meaningful lives. Through holistic therapy in Pasadena and here on the blog, my mission is to provide people with the support and tools they need to live their best life.