I know it sounds like hyperbole. How can something as simple as twisting and folding a body around on a foam mat make such an impact?
But during the most challenging, emotional, hopeless days of my life, I turned to yoga. Each time I felt anxious or frenetic, like my life was spiraling, I took the step to click “reserve spot” at an evening yoga practice and am so happy I did.
Yoga, I’ve learned, is so much more than stretching and power poses. In fact, it’s almost wholly not about getting aerobic exercise. Its value lies where it impacts your mind and your soul as it requests that you control your breathing, focus on strength and steadiness, and challenges your balance and flexibility.
Broadly, yoga encompasses some of the concepts that are growing in popularity among those who feel overwhelmed by life — and has done so for hundreds of years. Yoga is meditation, yoga is mindfulness, and yoga is gratitude. Given a talented and intuitive instructor, yoga can be a lot like therapy. I’ve seen people cry. I’ve come close myself.
Opening your body through yoga poses helps you open your mind and your heart to the world.
What we forget in modern cultures and modern times, especially in the West with its focus on pharmaceuticals and chemical medicines, is that the body and the mind are inextricably tied, one informing the other and vice versa. They’re an interconnected system, not to be considered in a vacuum. I was hospitalized in 2017 with what I first thought was a bad flu (after a week of being sick). It later become clear that I was simply allowing stress and negativity to consume me, by affecting my heart and liver. Perhaps these symptoms were correlated with the flu, but in my gut, I knew it was a mind thing too.
Yoga simultaneously addresses both the mind and the body, helping practitioners reconnect the pathways between the very tangible — muscles and joints and skeletal elements — and the less tangible — our conscious mind, our subconscious mind, and all the organs we can feel but not see or touch.
The best yoga classes I’ve been part of have always included a few key elements: a focus on breathing intentionally. A certain cadence or flow, such that the movements become almost automatic. An unobtrusive soundtrack. And a mixture of poses: endurance challengers like planks or the various warrior positions, an inversion (shoulder or head-stand), and the great unifier of all yoga classes and practitioners — downward dog.
There should also be lots of spinal twists, as my favorite instructor once said, “to give ourselves a delicious organ massage.”
Of course, a lot of yoga is simply working to stretch and elongate muscles to reduce stiffness, which is plenty important for young bodies, but becomes increasingly necessary as bodies age and the elasticity of just about everything begins to degrade.
Lately, I’ve enjoyed camel pose, which is a back bend initiated while standing upright on your knees. You reach your hands back to your heels, plant them, and then bend backward slowly, allowing your gaze to fall slack and entire chest and belly area open.
I recall what a good friend and serious yogi once told me, long before I got serious about yoga: “opening your body through yoga poses helps you open your mind and your heart to the world.” At first I rolled my eyes; later I realized that we are all fearful, protective of ourselves, and quick to be closed off to the pains, struggles, and ugliness of the world.
But that also closes us off to the beauty, grace, and radiance we feel when we are centered, open to goodness and authenticity, and moving about life from a place of abundance rather than scarcity.
For much of my life, I’ve been an introvert and highly sensitive to emotions, energies, and stimuli. I relish predictability, control, and planning. I have always been a fastidious gym-goer and weight-lifter, which tends to focus on compacting and hardening the muscles of the body.
Control, stability, and predictability are great traits for survival and for navigating life efficiently, but not so great in being open to opportunities, having faith in a certain universal plan, or being open to love and romance. Life is inherently messy, conflicted, serendipitous, and often pleasantly surprising. But it won’t be if you’re closed off to it, unwilling to take little leaps because of fear or distrust.
Yoga, with its emphasis on being present and open, aware of one’s center and core of identity and intrinsic value, lets practitioners know that everything will be O.K. Despite all the challenges in the world, distressing circumstances and uncertainties, every person is where they’re supposed to be, on a unique journey that cannot be compared to any other. And we’re all in it together, as human beings, doing our best.
Yoga is physical, sure, but it’s not competitive or judgmental the way other forms of exercise can be. It’s a check-in with every part of the body to say “how are you feeling today?” And whatever that answer is, so be it. I’m guilty of still preferring a more vigorous yoga practice to one that is overly meditative, but both can be healing and restorative.
Perhaps above all, yoga encourages us to be kind to ourselves, something I’m convinced most of us forget to do while being kind to others, caring for others, and putting others’ ahead of ourselves.
There are still days when I feel frustrated or stuck or cranky. Those feelings are valid and must be processed, but they’re not usually productive thoughts. They don’t foster rational decision-making or help devise paths forward.
In those periods, yoga brings me back to a peaceful place, reminding me that what truly matters is loving and forgiving yourself, loving and forgiving others, and approaching life without expectations or fear.
Everything I’ve said up to now may sound hokey and fluffy, but maybe that’s exactly what some of us need. In lieu of religious faith (or in addition to), yoga is a sort of personal, spiritual ritual that helps add dimension to an existence and punctuate a lifetime of noise and distractions. It’s the quiet space and time that most of us don’t get if we don’t purposefully carve it out.
I may never be great at yoga — I have fairly stiff, inflexible joints and muscles — but it’s primarily the non-physical aspects that have saved me from sickness, helped me remain calm and composed, and given me a sense of togetherness with the world and everyone in it that can often feel absent in modern life.
Yoga and its many tenets are applicable to anyone. Maybe if we all did a little bit more yoga, we’d get along better, be less ill, and be more aware of the beauty and brilliance that is just being alive.