Thanks to mainstream media, many of us know yoga as a workout that involves breathing, different poses, and stretching. However, yoga actually originated in India thousands of years ago as a spiritual practice to promote the well-being of humanity. The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit yuj, meaning to join or unite. In essence, yoga is meant to unite the mind, body, and spirit in harmony as a way to overcome suffering—something I think we could all use, no?
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Personally, I used to see yoga as just a workout without understanding the full spectrum of the practice, which is probably why engaging in a consistent yoga routine never really stuck. I knew yoga could be good for me since I have back issues and am prone to overthinking, but I still always had excuses why not to stick to a yoga routine: I’m not flexible, I don’t have any time, it costs too much money, etc. Flash forward to 2018 when I was in the midst of grad school. I was stressed out, anxious, and still having severe back pain. After attending a yoga event, I knew I needed to incorporate it more regularly into my life, but even then, I had no idea how it would end up changing my life.
Now, after consistently practicing yoga for years, I have witnessed the shift in my mental clarity, flexibility, and physical strength. And while each practice is different, showing up to my mat offers me a chance to turn my attention inward, allowing me to create positive changes in my life off the mat too. If you’ve ever been curious about expanding (or starting) your yoga practice, check out resources from The Yoga Institute and read on for my personal experience with yoga, how it has impacted me, and how it might transform your life too.
1. I am more intentional in my life
At the beginning of most classes, instructors encourage yogis to set an intention for themselves and that day’s practice. This could be a word, a phrase, or simply how you want to feel as you move through the flow. I’ve found that setting an intention and coming back to it throughout the class helps me feel more grounded in my practice. I’ve brought this practice in life off the mat, and setting intentions can be a powerful way to frame each day to add a greater sense of purpose.
2. I learned how to use my breath
Our breath is one thing that we simultaneously don’t have to think about and have the power to control. In yoga, pranayama is the ancient practice of controlling your breath through different techniques. When we consciously tune in to our breathing, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which is the “rest and digest” mode. I have noticed that taking the time to sit with my breath during my yoga classes has helped me decrease stress and anxiety. With all of the distractions of everyday life, it can be helpful to take time to pause and breathe, even for just a minute of each day.
3. I’m better at savoring the present moment
One of my favorite affirmations I learned in yoga is, “There is no rush.” I mean, how often do you find yourself hurrying from one task to the next? Or being so invested in work only to look up and see how your day flew by? So much of yoga is about intentionally slowing down and being at peace with each moment. When I am practicing yoga, I am choosing to be present in each pose and sit with my thoughts and feelings. While I wouldn’t say I am fully present 100% of the time, I can confidently say that adopting this mindset in my day-to-day life has helped me savor moments, regardless of how mundane they may seem.
4. I’ve let go of some of my perfectionism
I like to consider myself a “recovering perfectionist,” as I have been intentionally working toward releasing my expectations of how I think my life should look or how experiences should be. Regularly practicing yoga has played a huge role in this. With some poses, I feel strong, and others I feel like a knotted pretzel. As one of my instructors says, “Focus on how you feel, not how you think it should look.” Committing to a regular yoga practice to become more aligned with my body and mind and releasing preconceived notions have allowed me room for grace in other areas of my life. Poses do not have to be perfect and neither does every moment of your life. Showing up for yourself each day in the world is already enough.
5. I’m more connected to my emotions
The yoga instructors I’ve had often say catchy pieces of advice like, “We keep our issues in our tissues” or “Our hips are the junk drawers of the body.” As catchy as those phrases are, it turns out that trauma and other heavy emotions can be stored in the body. There has even been an increase in research on how practicing yoga can help release trauma. Speaking from personal experience, many classes or flows can bring up difficult feelings. I learned that sitting with my emotions and allowing them to take up space instead of over-analyzing or reacting allow me to better process what I am feeling.
6. I learned that there’s no such thing as “perfect balance”
Balance is such an elusive concept. It feels like if I could just spread my energy evenly between all facets of my life, I would suddenly have glowing skin, more time in my schedule, stronger friendships, and a flourishing career. But, much like falling out of Tree Pose, not everything in life is going to be completely balanced all of the time. Yoga has helped me accept this fact and concentrate my energy where it matters most. By regularly practicing balancing poses, I have been able to bring a greater awareness to my body and strengthen my core and mind, which also help me manage the many areas of my life off the mat.
7. I have more confidence in myself to get through hard things
I remember the first time I did an assisted headstand and my instructor let go of my feet. I was amazed at how my legs stayed in the air because the story I had been telling myself was that I was not strong enough. The confidence I gained in that single moment was a high like no other. As I have continued to practice yoga, I’ve become mindful of all the times I thought I couldn’t do different poses because they were too challenging or I didn’t have the flexibility or muscle strength.
By acknowledging where my thoughts were holding me back, I’ve been able to reflect on the other stories I’ve been telling myself in my day-to-day life. The reality is that I have been able to overcome challenges in life and will continue to do so. You are truly more than the story you tell yourself in your head. It is important to trust in yourself and know that you are always capable of changing your own narrative. I promise: You can do hard things, whether it’s nailing a headstand, having a difficult conversation, or making a big life change.
8. I’m better at listening to my body
When I first started practicing yoga, I was dealing with sciatica pain, tight hips, and tense hamstrings. Needless to say, I felt very disconnected from my physical body. Gradually, I started to repair this disconnect as my muscles became stronger and I increased flexibility. I am now happy to say that I no longer have issues with sciatica, but the lack of physical pain isn’t the only thing that’s changed. I’ve learned to listen to my body and what it needs. I find that yoga is a continuous self-study, and you deserve to tune in to what your body is trying to communicate.
9. I don’t compare myself to others
Back in some of my first yoga classes, I remember feeling envious of people who could plant their feet firmly on the ground in downward dog, and it was hard not to compare myself to those who had been practicing much longer than me. It took me a long time to understand that everybody’s yoga practice is different, and what feels good for one person doesn’t mean it’s right for someone else. Now, I choose to focus on my own mat while paying attention to what my body needs. This mindset works in everyday life too. We are all trying to live our lives in a way that is best for us; trust that you are following the right path, even if it looks different from everyone else’s.
10. I’m more comfortable with discomfort
One of the many aspects I enjoy about yoga is that every practice is a different experience. What feels good one day may be sticky or tight on another. Yoga is not about being in pain but rather finding your edge and seeing if you can expand just a little bit further. For me, learning how to sit with discomfort has offered room for growth. Feeling comfortable being uncomfortable has not only helped expand my yoga practice, but I also now see those uncomfortable life situations off the mat as an opportunity to expand and grow as a person.