Yoga is more popular today than ever. People have been practicing it for thousands of years, but it didn’t emerge into mainstream “Western” culture until the 1960s. But since then, it has exploded. Now, yoga is everywhere. Every bougie neighborhood in America’s cities has at least one studio if not more, many gyms are offering it as one of their group exercise program, doctors are suggesting it to patients as a way relieve stress and improve physical health, and it’s even making its ways into physical education curricula in public schools.
This is wonderful to see. Like sitting meditation (yoga is a meditation in itself), yoga is a chance to give our minds a rest. While doing yoga, the focus is almost entirely on the body and the breath. Yes, the mind will wander and generate thoughts (that’s its job!) but the practice allows us to come back to our center and remain present.
On top of the mental benefits, yoga is also great exercise. It helps to build strength and improve flexibility in a low-stress environment, i.e. without weights. Such exercise makes it easier for us to build muscles, recover from injuries, and ward off some of the health issues that can arise from the sedentary lifestyles that modern life often forces us to have.
Anyone who does yoga, even if only sporadically, has probably experienced these benefits. But for most of us, many of these benefits, particularly the mental ones, don’t often translate to life off the yoga mat. Maybe you feel a bit more spry or flexible, or a bit less sore. But I’m willing to bet that the state of calm and presence you get to experience while practicing and in the moments after you’re done don’t often translate to the rest of your life. At least that’s always been my experience. Yoga helped me relax while I was on the mat, but off it, I continued to be the same anxious wreck I always was.
This began to change when I started becoming more consistent in my practice. And things got even better when I stopped relying on teachers to guide me through the class and instead learned how to do my own practice. I definitely still go/watch classes, but my reason for doing so is different. More on this in a minute.
Consistency is key to a yoga practice because it helps keep you focused. And also because the physical nature of it becomes less of a roadblock. The body loosens a bit and allows you to do more, and this gives you the chance to focus on what’s really important in yoga — your breath.
The word yoga in Sanskrit means “union.” The practice was given this name because it’s designed to help unify your mind and body. And the way to do this is through the breath. The unending process of inhalation and exhalation is our body’s most visceral connection to the present moment. It’s the most important thing we can do at any given moment. Yet it is so automatic that we often forget or minimize its significance. But by engaging in activities that force us to focus on our breathing, we can train ourselves to pay closer attention to the present. This helps keep us centered and maintain perspective. Being present reminds us not to worry too much about the future or dwell excessively on the past, and that although things might not be exactly as we want them to be right now, we are still okay. We’re alive. We’re breathing. And that’s really all that matters.
When we meditate (using pretty much any meditation technique out there), this is the goal — to be aware of our present reality. So, then, why does yoga have us do this while putting our bodies into difficult sometimes strenuous positions? Well, it’s simple: life is difficult and most often strenuous.
This makes yoga a microcosm of life. It’s a chance for us to practice, in a non-threatening way, staying present while being subjected to stress. But this stress doesn’t come from the outside world. It’s not brought on by our jobs, our partners, our families, etc. Instead, it’s created by our decision to put ourselves in that position. We feel it in certain muscles and muscle groups instead of everywhere. This muscle stress is a symbol, though, of the other stressors in our lives. And if we can learn to stay present while in this state, we will be better armed to deal with the challenges of life.
Yoga teachers are always talking about staying focused on your breath, and using your breath to sink deeper into the stretch, and “breathing into the hips, hamstrings, lower back, etc.” But no yoga teacher I’ve ever had really explained to what this really meant, so it always felt a bit…facetious. Plus, they are always inteejecting their instructions with “inhale and lift the leg” or “exhale and down.” Normally, my breathing pattern didn’t align with this, so I was left either trying to correct my respiration or worrying I was doing something “wrong.”
Also, yoga teachers are impossibly flexible. That’s why they get into yoga, I imagine. It comes natural to them. And while it’s good to be taught by someone who is clearly capable of teaching, this is also confusing because most of us aren’t that flexible. I know I’m not. Yes, a consistent practice loosens me up and allows me to bend and flex a lot more. But my body is not built for splits, or for touching my head to the ground while keeping my knees straight during a forward fold.
Good teachers (including the ones I’ve had) emphasize how that’s not important, and that everyone’s bodies are different but it’s only natural for us as humans to want to emulate what others are doing. And when the teacher takes a pose and your body doesn’t come close to looking like that, feelings of inadequacy start to creep in.
These feelings are not only a manifestation of a negative energy that has no business in a yoga practice but they are also going to distract us from the fundamental goal of yoga: presence under stress.
I found that in the early days of my practice, when holding a posture that looked nothing like what the teacher was doing, I focused all of my attention on the stressed area, using my breath to try and get me deeper into the pose. This works, and it’s a great way to stretch more. But stretching more actually makes the stress and pain worse. This may produce the result of improving muscular strength and flexibility, but it does not help bring about the positive mental benefits of yoga.
This is because the goal of yoga is not to “succeed” in shaping your body into whatever the position demands. Instead, the objective is to find your center, unify your mind and body, and remain present despite the stress, which, depending on the pose, can actually manifest as pain.
This became very apparent to me after I finally learned enough positions and poses to do things on my own. Without a model to look at, or someone telling me when to breathe and where to position certain body parts, I was freed to simply move with my body and breathe.
After this moment, I started to see how yoga could in fact help me in daily life. If II stopped focusing on the stressed parts of my body and instead focused solely on my breath, the stress and pain in my muscles didn’t go away, but I was able to look past it. To accept it and move on. To remain centered and present despite whatever else was going on in my body at the time.
Living a life free of anxiety, worry, stress, and pain demands this type of perspective. Life is constantly testing us, and this makes suffering an integral part of our daily existence. But if we can train ourselves to connect with out center, acknowledge the pain without focusing on it, and remain in the present moment, then these stressors need not dominate our lives. Instead, we can deal with them strategically and move forward towards whatever goals we hope to achieve. And when we do this, we can take the peace and bliss we feel after doing yoga and apply to the rest of our lives.
Having said all of this, I am by no means a yoga expert. I still go to classes regularly so that I can learn new postures and make sure I am not doing anything that could harm my body. But I mix these classes in with my own personal practice so that I don’t miss out on this fundamental lesson yoga has to teach us. So, the next time you go to practice yoga, I encourage you to focus less on “achieving” and more on the task of remaining present in the face of the normal stresses and pains that being human so often produces.
Namaste and be well.