Someone recently asked me why they should start yoga. A reasonable question. I could have reeled off all the typical benefits - strength, flexibility, stress relief etc. But frankly it's a bit dull. It got me thinking over many weeks about what made me take my first step onto my mat and more importantly what made me stick with this practice above anything else.
Yoga is not the answer to life’s woes. Yoga will not cure an illness. Yoga will not mend a broken heart. Yoga will not fix a broken relationship. Yoga will not make me a better person. Yoga is not the secret formula to a better life.
So, if yoga can offer me none of these things, why bother to practice yoga at all? The eight limbs, the yoga sutras and an unfathomable number of textbooks shed light on what yoga is or should be. These texts and philosophies are important and should be studied. But the real life application of yoga can be simpler than that.
Yoga is simply a tool to help me to implement significant and lasting change in my life if I choose to do so. Yoga is the opportunity to truly and honestly look at who I am and decide if that is the person I want to be. During my practice I connect with my breath again and again. Connecting with my breath gives each moment a sense of purpose. I am there, wholly and completely, in that moment. Within that moment I have great capacity to process information about myself. To examine how I react to challenges, to positive situations, to negative situations. To notice the horrible things I say to myself. To notice the wonderful moments when I am kind to myself. If I do it on the mat then I do it off the mat.
I have used yoga as an excuse more times than I can count. I haven’t made it onto my mat and that is why I got pissed off at a complete stranger today. No, I was just being a bit of a dick and didn’t take responsibility for my actions. Not practicing yoga is not a free pass to behave badly, to be short tempered, to feel sorry for myself, to not try. Or to be totally awesome but only in the yoga studio.
When I first started upon my yoga journey I came to class looking to forgot about my day. I opened my ears and listened intently to every alignment cure. I connected with my breath. I stretched and moved my body. I observed sensations in my body and responded with care. It felt good. I felt good. I melted into the floor in Savasana, bowed my head in gratitude at the end of practice and floated back to my house. I felt great. I went to bed and slept soundly. The next morning I felt good but not quite as good as I felt the night before. By the time I had my coffee the warm and fuzzy yoga bubble had disappeared. The only trace of my practice were my achy limbs. I was not open to listening to those around me as intently as I had to my yoga teacher’s beautiful instructions. I didn’t take a moment to breathe when things got onto top of me. I was quick to react rather than take the time to respond.
I had my moment of clarity in class whilst in the midst of a particularly long pigeon pose. The man beside me had a headcold and had sniffed his way through class. I became enraged and silently screamed ‘Shut the f**k up’. I was shocked but my reaction and I remember saying to myself, ‘You are making this more difficult than it needs to be. Let it go’. After class I went home and the post yoga glow continued a little longer than usual. I resolved to take my practice off the mat. I decided to make things easier for myself, to drop the struggle, and just let it go. I get to choose how I behave towards myself and towards others. Sometimes I fail. I take a breath. I apologise. And I try again. Yoga didn’t change me. I did.
The benefit of a regular yoga practice only started to make sense when it left the mat and travelled with me. This heightened awareness allows me to decide whether to respond to the stranger who pissed me off today with compassion or to just react in haste.
Physical flexibility is not the measure of a yogi but how I deal with my limitations, physical, mental and emotional, off the mat shows me exactly who I am and who I can be. I have an extraordinary capacity to evolve as an individual. I am human. I will make mistakes. It will take time. That is perfectly fine and to be expected. Yoga will help me to achieve my highest potential by showing me the door to change but I have to open the door and walk through it.