When I started practicing yoga twenty-five years ago, I had a lot of misconceptions about what it was, and what it was not. Mostly, I thought yoga was stretching on the floor, or that it was something “hippies” did, or that I might have to buy a sitar and change my name to something spiritual.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was way off, and that yoga was not just about the poses, about challenging my body and increasing my strength and flexibility physically, it was a way of increasing my strength and flexibility mentally, too. It was a way of moving through the world, a process of coming home to myself, a practice that rightly seeped into every aspect of my life and gave me the tools to shift the tendencies that weren’t serving me. It took me years to understand why and how my practice on the mat was helping me change patterns in my life, and I think if someone had explained it to me in terms I could understand when I started practicing, I might have made positive, meaningful changes sooner, and with greater awareness and ease.
Here are three things I wish I’d understood about yoga sooner:
#1. The breath is the foundation of the practice; it teaches us to be present and engaged with what is happening right here, right now.
It also calms the nervous system, creating an environment where all kinds of thoughts and feelings may arise, so that we can look at them with some distance. Prana means “life force”, and yama means “control”; pranayama is the practice of bringing our inhales and exhales to the forefront–of taking an unconscious process (breathing), and bringing consciousness to it–lengthening and deepening the inhales and exhales, creating the “ocean sound” by learning how to engage “jalandhara bandha” (the throat lock), finding pauses at the top of the breath and the bottom of the breath–essentially, engaging the mind with something that is occurring in our now. This ability eventually follows us off the mat so we can be more present with our loved ones, when we’re in conversation, driving, sitting in a meeting or going on a hike. The mind is always pulling us into the past or into the future, but having a breathing practice helps us draw the mind back to the present, and that’s a gift!
#2. Learning how to breathe through intense sensation gives us tools to breathe through intense emotion.
When you train yourself to breathe deeply in a lunge you’re holding for ten or twelve breaths, you’re also teaching your mind and nervous system to stay calm and breathe when you’re faced with challenging emotions. Emotions create sensations. If we’re enraged, that’s not an idea in the mind, those are feelings in the body–the heart races, the jaw or fists might clench, the shoulders go up around the ears, the blood pressure rises giving us a “hot head”. That time spent in the lunge when your quadricep was on fire serves you when your heart or your mind are on fire. The same holds true for any emotion–fear, longing, depression, anxiety. Having a breathing practice gives you the opportunity to explore your emotions without fearing you’ll be overwhelmed by them. That way you can know yourself.
#3. The focal points or drishtis give us the ability to follow through on our intentions.
Intentions are wonderful. We can make lists and vision boards and keep our journals, but if there’s no action in service to those intentions, there’s also no shift, no movement. In every pose on your mat, there’s a focal point. In Warrior 2 you gaze over the front fingertips toward the horizon, for example. Training your mind to do one thing at a time gives you the tools to direct your energy. Instead of being at the mercy of your monkey mind, you know how to pick it up, and place your attention on something of your choosing, like your passion project. This is the difference between setting aside an hour and really getting something done, or setting aside that same hour, only to realize too late you wasted it scrolling social media.
These are just three things we practice on the mat that directly translate into your life off the mat. I could write for hours about others (and did, actually, in my forthcoming book :)). Yoga is powerful and transformative because it gives us the tools to live in alignment with what is true for us, to be aware of ourselves and others, to learn how to speak calmly about how we feel, to listen deeply to ourselves and those we love. And you don’t have to change your name or buy a sitar (unless you want to)!
Sending you love,