I was a freshman in college when yoga came into my life. Up until then, I had thought of yoga as an easy way to stretch and something akin to meditation. It didn’t seem all that powerful…until I was an anxious, homesick, terrified 17 year-old.
My mom, noticing a pattern in my 4 or 5 times-daily phone calls, ordered me a basic yoga DVD and a pink yoga mat off of Amazon. Though I was skeptical, I began practicing every morning in my tiny dorm room and quickly fell in love. Five years later, yoga has been a constant thread in my life.
I’ve spent summers practicing at my local studio. I’ve streamed classes and workshops on my laptop when I needed a random class. I taught yoga to high school students. And I have spent years perfecting my headstand. Yoga has been there for me during my happiest days, and my most stressful, and it has taught me so much about my body and what it is capable of. Throughout these five years, yoga has had a profound effect on how I view fitness, and how I view myself. Here’s some of the big lessons I’ve learned:
It’s all on you.
Yoga is about your body. It’s your arms that are holding you in Downward Dog, and your hips opening in Pigeon pose, and your legs planting firmly on the ground in Warrior. While that may seem overwhelming — “What if I can’t do it or what if I fall?”, we ask ourselves — I find it liberating. You don’t need any fancy machines or equipment to practice yoga. All you need is your body, because every pose is about moving your body in a different way to achieve a different result. While this does require a bit of self-accountability, because you can’t blame anything on a machine failing, yoga can show you just how powerful you actually are. Every pose and sequence is the result of your body — your muscles, your bones — working as one with your mind.
I have never felt as strong as I do when I finish a yoga practice because I look back and see all that I was able to accomplish all on my own. When I finally kicked up into the tripod headstand I had been practicing for months, I was thrilled that my abs, my arms, my shoulders, and my legs had finally done what I had been trying to get them to do for so long. It was exhilarating.
Meet your body where it is.
Yoga never seeks to change your body because it is for everybody and every body. It doesn’t matter what you are bringing to your mat at the beginning of your practice because yoga is well-equipped to deal with it.
Injured? There’s a modification for that. While on a yoga vacation in Costa Rica, I met a girl who one day twisted her ankle and modified an entire yoga practice so she wouldn’t have to put any weight on it, but could still get the full effects of a yoga practice. To this day, I’m still impressed and use that day as inspiration whenever I’m feeling sore or am dealing with an injury.
Tired, but still want to practice in some way? Take it easy. Take a resting pose whenever you need to and don’t force your body to do something it really doesn’t want to do. Some of my favorite yoga instructors begin their classes by reminding us that resting poses, such as Child’s Pose, Downward Dog, or Savasana, are always there if you need a moment to catch your breath or just chill out. You aren’t “cheating” by taking these poses. Rather, you are listening to your body and giving it what it needs. I’d argue that this is harder than forcing yourself into Birds of Paradise with an injured or sore hamstring.
Feeling a little stressed or anxious? (As I often was when I first started practicing yoga) That’s okay! Allow yoga’s focus on linking your movement to your breath to calm that fluttering heartbeat and stop it from sending you into a tailspin. Don’t fight the stress; recognize it, and let it pass.
When I say yoga is for every body, I mean it. Yoga doesn’t assume that you are here to work on a “problem area” or reach a “goal” weight or size. Rather, it is about tapping into your strength and where your body is to do what it needs to do. There is nothing wrong with your body and yoga will demonstrate this by modifying itself for you, where you are and who you are today. Embrace this philosophy on your mat, and I guarantee you will start to feel this way off your mat.
You can’t count yoga.
For nearly two years, I wore a fitness tracker that would count my steps and my heart rate throughout the day. I could log into an app and see how this particular Monday compared to other Mondays and how my step count had changed over the course of several months. As someone who loves data, this was fascinating, and I enjoyed the extra boost of motivation it gave me to get moving. Yoga, however, didn’t abide by my fitness tracker’s rules. Even if I walked out of a 90-minute heated practice with dozens of sun salutations feeling its effects immediately in my abs and hamstrings, my tracker didn’t think it counted. According to my tracker, I was no closer to reaching my “step goal”. I knew I had gotten a workout in, but not being able to track it frustrated me.
Recently, I stopped wearing my fitness tracker and the past few months have been liberating. This has made me realize that “fitness” isn’t about how many steps you’ve taken or how many miles you ran. It’s about doing what your body needs and relying on how it feels to judge your workout. Yoga reminded me of this because you can’t necessarily count and track yoga in numbers of steps or heart rates, because it’s not that tangible. What matters is how you feel at the end of a practice.
Take care of your body!
This is perhaps one of the biggest lessons yoga has taught me. Anyone who knows me knows that I can get a little tunnel-visioned and can very easily ignore the seemingly trivial essentials such as sleep or rest. Taking advantage of rest seems weak as we feverishly pursue our goals, and so much of the fitness world is built on that “can’t stop, won’t stop” attitude. Not yoga. Yoga reminds us that rest is both beneficial and crucial. If you’ll notice, nearly all yoga classes end with a final resting pose such as savasana, and encourage you to take a Child’s Pose if you need a minute to chill. The fact that rest is built into a yoga practice is a constant reminder that rest is a crucial part of caring for your body. Similar to the lesson that yoga is for every body, yoga seeks to care for your body at all times. Self-care is absolutely critical, and yoga has served as a constant reminder of that oftentimes difficult but important lesson for me.
For more information on how to incorporate yoga into your life and reap the incredible benefits, no matter where you are and what your budget is, check out my recent article on keeping fit on a budget! I highly encourage everyone to incorporate a little yoga into their lives, for however long you can. Yoga, and the lessons that it can teach you, is always there for you, ready to change your life.