Ever feel like your life lacks real meaning? Like you’re moving along on autopilot?
Or you're living for other people's expectations rather than your own?
When we're kids we're told we can accomplish anything if we work hard enough. So you get into a good college, then you get a job. It might not be your dream job, but it pays the rent and more.
A few years down the road, you realize you’re working your ass off, but you’re not sure why. To have a nice car? To afford an enviable house?
For many years I toiled away at a corporate job, but I had no idea why. I was unfulfilled, and I didn't want to admit it—I was unhappy.
I tried to drown out my insecurities and doubts with binge drinking. But the doubts remained. I was an avid exerciser: running, biking, even triathalon. But I couldn’t run away from the niggling thoughts that I was unhappy.
One day I walked into a yoga class. By today's standards it wasn't fancy-- a gym with florescent lights, no props or music.
Yet, in that class I felt something new, something remarkable. I learned to tune into the music of my breath, to peer beyond my thoughts, and I started to feel different.. The rest is history.
Do You Make This Mistake?
Many people mistake yoga for exercise or religion. Yoga is a philosophy whose goal is individual happiness.
But the path to going from stress to zen isn’t always clear.
You can use yoga for whatever you crave in your life: connection to your loved ones, connection to your body, or even connection to your crazy thoughts. Regardless of your needs, yoga creates union between your mind, body, intellect and spirit. And that improves everything.
Before you race to a yoga class, take a moment to consider these ideas about yoga, otherwise you may miss out on it’s real benefits. With this knowledge, you’ll be clear and confident when you approach a yoga class or even set up your home practice.
1. Yoga Trumps Exercise and Stretching
Many activities include stretching and some of the postures from yoga—gymnastics, stretching classes, cross fit. Yoga classes are different because your breathing is the center of the practice. When you slow down your breath you slow down your mind.
This benefits your mind and body because your breath is linked to your autonomic nervous system. You’ve probably heard of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity. In sympathetic mode you're in “fight or flight,” and can experience higher blood sugar, restricted blood flow to gut, production of stress hormones, increased blood pressure.
Sympathetic activity serves a purpose when we’re in danger, but many people exist in sympathetic mode all the time. And as a result, their health suffers.
In yoga when you slow down your breath, especially the exhalation, you're activating your parasympathetic nervous system. Parasympathetic activity brings us back to the “rest and digest” mode, where we turn off the signals of danger in our body.
Empowered with your breath, the next time you feel anxiety about a big decision rising, you can stop the stress in it's tracks without an external crutch like drugs, alcohol or food.
2. Yoga Is the Path To A Calm Mind
In yoga you learn to channelize the mind, to slow down your thoughts so you recognize and appreciate the present moment.
When you take a little distance from your thoughts you’ll feel happier. Our thoughts are temporary; they change, just like the wind changes directions.
Have you ever found yourself inside a fictional story that was triggered by one thought?
A few weeks ago I felt nausea for no apparent reason. I’m definitely not pregnant. I started to think about how I could have a growth in my abdomen that would cause this type of nausea. In a couple hours I felt fine and the anxiety abated.
Yoga coaxes you to befriend yourself in the perfectly imperfect state of the present. Working on yourself doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you. Buddhist Meditation teacher Pema Chodron describes this perfectly:
But loving-kindness—maitri—toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years.” ~The Wisdom of No Escape, Pema Chodron.
3. Yoga Brings Lasting Inner Happiness
You learn to stop comparing yourself to other people. You are unique and exquisite, unlike anyone else in this world. When you look at the success of others with joy and curiosity, you’ll feel happy for them without feeling like it cuts into your share of happiness or success.
We all struggle to find happiness, to feel less lonely, fewer self doubts. If you look at Facebook you'll see everyone else’s happy side, which is only part of the picture. It’s okay to feel angry, depressed, fearful, and doubtful. The key is to accept feelings without suppressing them.
Remember that our thoughts are temporary, and they aren’t who we are. Negative thoughts will pass, especially when you resist the urge to suppress.
A word of caution—social media shapes our awareness about the world. Browse with intention, and especially the awareness that you're not seeing the whole picture.
4. Yoga Increases Your Compassion
My teachers defines yoga as "a living art." They go on, "As with any art form, yoga nurtures seeds of aesthetic satisfaction that stimulate flashes of understanding and compassion." ~Richard Freeman & Mary Taylor, The Art of Vinyasa.
Yoga teaches perspective. It’s not important that you do things perfectly, but it’s important that you understand why, and that you keep trying when times get tough.
You learn to see the events in your life with curiosity. You can choose to pause and formulate your response.
Yoga even helps with parenting. When I’m tired or stressed, it’s very hard for me to be patient with my son. His 4-year old behaviors are more irritating. In those moments, I take a few breaths and remember how much I love him, and how he’s only four. And this helps. (Note, I’m not a perfect mother, and sometimes I get irritated). But I keep trying.
Yoga also gives you simple tenets of living a happier more compassionate life. (link to future blog post). Different from morals, the yamas and niyamas help you to live harmoniously within your own mind and with society.
5. Yoga Helps Your Body Where You Most Need It
Most people associate physical postures with yoga. Often people talk themselves out of practicing yoga, because they are afraid of looking silly. Understandable, because we’re shown images of perfection in the media.
Remember this: everyone is perfect and everyone looks silly sometimes.
You can wear anything to do yoga. Your clothing isn’t a reflection of your skills. Your clothing should be comfortable and distraction free.
You don't have to be fit for flexible to start yoga. Start with a class that's appropriate to your level. If you’re new, start with an Intro class so you develop a foundation.
When you practice consistently over time, you'll notice how yoga reverses holding patterns in your body. Do you tend to tense your jaw, shoulders, or your hips? You’ll learn how to release these.
If you want more flexible hips or stronger arms, you can get there with deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is purposeful and systematic. This means that you show up and work towards your end goal.
Changes Come Over Time With Consistent Practice
To transform your life with yoga, you need to build it into your life. This could look like a little meditation, deep breathing, and developing a kinder attitude.
Small amounts of yoga over time will make a big difference.
Use yoga to build a consistent and steady routine that leads to inner transformation.
Over time you’ll realize how your life improves and you feel happier.
P.S. Stay tuned for a list of free yoga resources next week!