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August 9, 2014

11 Powerful Lessons Yoga has Taught Me. ~ Olivia Wood

Olivia Wood, not for reuse

At the end of 2013 I was on the brink of what you could call a nervous breakdown.

Stuck in a job I hated, living a life I felt utterly disillusioned with and caught up in a perpetual pattern of negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours, I felt lost, alone and deeply, profoundly sad.

Then one day, in the midst of my despair, I stumbled upon a yoga retreat in India. I set my intention on that retreat like it was the only thing that could save me from falling deeper and deeper into my own inner turmoil.

And I did it—I went—and it changed my life.

In fact I’d go so far as to say it saved my life (my emotional life, that is).

Since then (January of this year), I have been on the most incredible, rewarding and empowering journey of healing and self-discovery, with yoga at its heart. And it’s a journey that I feel compelled to share because I am now, just six months on, so profoundly happy, at peace with myself and so grateful for all that life has to offer.

As a side-note, in case you are unfamiliar with the literal meaning of yoga, it comes from the Sanskrit  to join or to unite. And this is what yoga is really about. It’s not about being flexible, and bendy, toned and fit; it is a tool to bring us to our natural state of oneness—to connect us with ourselves, with each other and with the world around us.

Asana (the physical yoga postures that likely bring to mind pretzel-like twisting, bending and folding of the body into unimaginably uncomfortable positions), is just one of the branches of yogic tradition—all of which were designed by our yogi forefathers to bring us to our perfect human condition. Call it “bliss,” call it “unconditional love,” “consciousness” or “Enlightenment.” That is just semantics.

What I know to be true is that it is possible (and magical!) to feel this connection—to feel at One with all that is, all that has been, and all that will be.

These yogis of days-gone-by were very wise, by the way. Because while they knew that meditation could also be used as a far less arduous method to get to this utopia (although it is in fact tangible), they understood that there are many obstacles in our way to arrive there.

Namely, the mind (in particular the Ego, created by the mind as a means of “protecting us”—a by-product of our basic survival instincts), and the physical body, which does not much like sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours on end.

We can cramp, we get aches and pains, and with that our minds almost immediately step in to distract us, convincing us out of this act of surrender, providing us instead with a hundred and one excuses for why there would be something far better to do with our time instead.

With this in mind I wanted to share with you 11 things that yoga has taught me. I hope this inspires you to give it a go one day, and if you already have, to keep in mind its true purpose: the wondrous and magical (but achievable!) realisation of our innate goodness, of our oneness—of our true purpose here on earth.

1. Just breathe

This may sound trivial, but trust me, it’s one of the best lessons I have learnt from yoga, and one which I take with me off the mat every day. When faced with a difficult situation or when experiencing unsettling emotions, the first thing that comes to my mind is “just breathe.” Slowly, in through the nose and out through the nose (closing my eyes helps too), and just breathe. Sure enough, I feel calmer, stronger and more able to deal with whatever is going on around me and within me.

2. Living in the present

I had always desired to achieve this—to live in the present—because I knew, even as I was doing it, that to be consumed with problems of the past and worries about the future is truly a tormenting experience. If you take a moment to consider how much of your day you spend worrying about what is going to happen next, or analysing what has happened before, I am sure you will agree that this can become extremely detrimental to your mental, emotional and even physical health.

This state of constant worry about things that in fact you can neither control, nor change, breeds fear, anxiety and even depression. And in modern day society, where stress is at near epidemic levels, I cannot urge you enough to consider the benefit of being present only in the moment—to take each day, hour and even minute at a time, and to experience those moments fully. Yoga is one very tangible practice to help get you there.

3. Awareness and Acceptance

While what I described above (Enlightenment, et al) may sound like a utopian concept, it is not. It is in fact our destiny to attain it.

But importantly, what yoga has taught me is that to be conscious, to be “enlightened” (and I am not saying I am, by the way—far, far from it!) does not mean to be perfect. It simply means to be conscious of (to be aware of) your actions, thoughts and emotions. And through this awareness you will come to recognise patterns of behaviour which lead to fear, anxiety, jealousy, greed and other such emotions detrimental to the human spirit.

Through this awareness, you’ll soon find that you can remedy some of these negative behaviours and bring peace and happiness into your life (and to those around you).

But, concurrently, you will learn to accept that you are human, and that it is OK to feel sadness, and jealousy, and fear. You will learn to accept yourself for who you are—and to love yourself for who you are. And with practice, you will realise that this is the most important gift of all: to be you, in all your manifestations—the good, the bad and the ugly; to be authentic and truthful and whole; to honour and accept yourself in your totality.

4. Letting go

As a famous Zen teaching goes, “Let go of comparing, of competing, of judgments, of anger, of regrets, of worrying, of blame, of guilt and of fear.” Just let go—simple! (Okay, not simple at all, but start, day by day, to let go of all that is preventing you from being happy, from being at peace and from being you.)

How does yoga help with this? Refer to point 1: Just Breathe. Imagine that with each exhale you are expelling the negative thoughts and feelings that eat you up inside, and with each inhale you are bringing fresh, new life force (prana) into your being. This is Creation in action: with each cycle of breath, a new moment is born and the old, gone, transformed into something different altogether.

Life keeps going, whether you like it or not, and regardless of whether you fret over these things or not. They are just thoughts, they are just feelings—and you really can just let them go.

5. Opening my heart

I firmly believe that to follow your heart is the only path to true happiness. It was yoga that taught me that. But the first step was to open my heart, because I had shut it down, emotionally speaking, veiling it with a protective shield that prevented me from really feeling the painful emotions that I needed to deal with, as well as preventing positive vibrations from entering me—preventing me from accepting love.

In fact, yoga showed me how to open my heart, quite literally. Through physical “heart-opener” postures such as Fish Pose, I expanded my chest, which interestingly I found very uncomfortable at first on an emotional level as well as physical—often leaving me in floods of tears afterwards and with many difficult thoughts going through my mind.

As I practiced more I observed the thoughts and emotions that came with these asanas, particularly concerning my heart, and began connecting with the traumas I knew were causing my emotional outbursts. Once observed, I began to process, to grieve, to accept, and to heal.

6. Following my heart (and my gut)

Once opened, the possibilities for love and for joy seemed endless! I discovered that all I needed to do was to be open for the beauty of life’s gifts to come to me, and come they did, aplenty. I learnt to stop listening to my pesky mind, which still tried to step in and distract me with doubts, fears and worries, and instead, listen to my inner self: to follow what I knew was right, what I knew was good. And it always takes me to the places I need to go. Sometimes these instincts are even deeper—in the belly. You know what I mean by a “gut feeling.” Well, trust that. You own intuition is the most powerful gift you have.

7. Gratitude and compassion

Wow, this is a good one. But perhaps points 1-5 need to be realised first because I know through experience how hard it is to feel gratitude for what you have and compassion for others when you are consumed with despairing, negative feelings. But really we all must be grateful for what we have. Because no matter what is going on, you always have something to be grateful for, and there will always be someone out there going through the same—or worse—than you. And once you realise that, and start to count your blessings (and I would suggest doing this, daily, as a sort of self-practice), you will see the beauty of life unraveling in front of you in all its magnificent glory.

8. Don’t take anything for granted

I learnt this one recently in practice, and it relates to the point above. I was already incredibly grateful for yoga and all it was doing for me (grounding me, nourishing me, opening me up, calming me down). Then one day I fell off a motorbike and badly cut my leg and foot. Yoga over, just like that. I got through it, as my practice had already developed beyond the physical; I could carry yoga’s lessons with me in other ways (by meditating, for example). But once I was able to do asana again I was thrilled!

Then, another accident: tripped down the stairs and broke my foot. Again, my lifeline was cut to my beloved sanctuary of daily yoga and I was forced again to stop, to rest, to do… pretty much nothing.

You can apply this to all areas of life: nothing is guaranteed. What is here today may be gone the next, so appreciate and value what you have while you have it. You never know what may happen next.

9. Everything is a lesson

What yoga, and its offspring—mindfulness—has really taught me, is that everything is a lesson. Everything that happens, past, present and future, is an opportunity to learn—about yourself, about the world and about your place in it. What have I learnt, in regards to that experience in particular? That I need to look after my body more, that I need to be less reckless, and that sometimes it is okay to stop and to give myself some much needed TLC.

10. It’s about the journey, not the destination

With yoga, and with life, the beauty of the practice is not about the “results,” but about the journey.

Any yogi or yogini will know that the journey on (and off) the mat is for life. Every practice brings with it a new lesson. Because every time you get on that mat you bring with you different challenges—mental, physical and emotional—and the experience differs accordingly. Sometimes you feel physically strong but may observe this leads to a competitiveness with others around you—perhaps highlighting an ego issue you should address.

Other times your balance may be off-kilter, and you might consider whether you are trying to juggle too many balls at once in your life. But above all, to observe and accept what is going on (point 3), and then to learn from it (point 8), is all that really matters.

11. Never give up

I simply love this quote from the Dalai Lama, and I am so grateful that yoga, amongst other things, has helped me to find the resilience, courage and inner strength to believe it whole-heartedly.

Never give up!

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Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Author’s Own

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