One of the most helpful things I have ever done for myself–physically, mentally, and spiritually–is yoga. I didn’t always share my current level of appreciation for this practice.
I arrived at my first yoga class clueless about yoga but looking good in my recently purchased cotton yoga pants and Birkenstocks. I guess I thought I needed to look like Ghandi. I forced my body to bend into pretzel-like forms, ignoring its wails of protest as well as the admonishments from the teacher to “listen to your body”. My “no pain, no gain” philosophy was basically my approach to everything. For weeks, I dreaded every yoga class until I finally found a convenient excuse to quit.
That was 20 years ago. Now, remarkably, I practice yoga daily and have been a yogi for about 6 years. You see, yoga is not just a physical exercise routine. It’s a mental, physical and spiritual practice. Like other spiritual undertakings, you have to be ready for it. You have to be willing to let go of assumptions and see the thing through “new eyes”. I think most of us carry with us a desire to make our lives count, to leave the world a better place for having been here. Most of the people who have made a difference in the world seem to have achieved some measure of inner peace in that process despite–or possibly because of–great adversity. For most of us, this path is not clear.
The age-old yearning for clarity and direction we humans have has led to the creation of many paths, called by many names–religions, philosophies, political ideologies. Yoga is just one path out of the spiritual wilderness that has been walked for 5,000 years. It gives us a new way to BE in the world, a new way of moving, a new way of responding to daily challenges. Yoga is a journey inward that brings us back to the essence of our true selves.
There is only one prerequisite for yoga. We must be open to spiritual growth and willing to take action on own behalf. Our bodies, our breath, our minds, and our choices are being refined in the laboratory that is the yoga mat. As we learn on the mat, we can extend out those lessons to the rest of our lives.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand this with an example. One of the principles of Yoga is called ahimsa, meaning nonviolence. For some including myself, it is first experienced on the mat in relation to how we take the body through yoga poses. We can struggle and force the body into these positions, but in doing so, we will likely injure ourselves. At the very least, it is a recipe for shame and humiliation. Or, we can practice ahimsa. We honor the body, wherever it is in that moment, stretching only to a gentle edge and not inflicting pain upon ourselves.
I have experienced many benefits from my yoga practice. The pain related to my Fibromyalgia is less. My sleep and energy are better. I feel more grounded and centered after doing yoga. As a result of this practice, I think I feel more compassion for myself and others, and more connection.
I’d like to close this with a passage from Meditations from the Mat by Rolf Gates.
Many of us have spent years trying to ameliorate the world’s suffering without first confronting our own. The belief that it is possible to heal the world without first healing ourselves is what the Yoga Sutras call a lack of true knowledge. The truth is, when we are happy, we spread true happiness, and when we are in pain, we spread suffering. If our aim is to alleviate the world’s suffering, we must begin with our own minds and bodies. We must do yoga. We need not fear the steps we are about to take. With each step we take toward the light, the universe rejoices. When we let go of our suffering, we participate in the salvation of all living beings.