While each of the roughly 24 million adults who practiced yoga in 2013 have unique life stories and dreams, all of us who who continue to practice do have one thing in common: the desire to improve our lives.
Ask anyone who practices regularly, or even sporadically—yoga improves your life. Those of us who have been practicing yoga (for the purposes of this piece “yoga” means physical postures combined with specific breathing techniques) consistently over time are happier, more productive and experience more joy and less fear. We are—at least to some degree—flourishing. But what does this mean?
“Flourishing” is more than just plodding along and more than just being in a good mood—it’s thriving. When you’re thriving, you deal better with stress and meet life’s challenges without becoming completely overwhelmed, and you can also bounce back quicker. In short, you are more resilient.
Yoga’s benefits are touted everywhere from in glossy magazines to scientific journals, as well as by the medical establishment and even the military. Regular yoga practice helps us deal with stress and promotes equanimity. Flourishing is not about eliminating negative experiences, it’s about being better able to deal with them.
And it’s more than that, more than happiness (the holy grail in our society.) It’s about doing what we were put on the earth to do, living our purpose, claiming our place at the cosmic table. This is the yogic concept of dharma, the unique destiny that each one of us has and must fulfill in order to really thrive.
When we’re living our dharma, we’re doing the thing that only we can do in our own unique way. That might mean being an athlete, or physics teacher, a parent, a priest or a dancer—the possibilities are infinite because each one of us adds our own signature style to whatever we do. Regular yoga practice helps us uncover, or step more fully into, our dharma because yoga gives us the tools to get quiet and listen to our inner knowing and respond to our inner GPS, which is programmed to take us toward our unique destiny and purpose.
Here are 10 ways that regular yoga practice can help us flourish:
- Yoga connects us to our breath.
Steady deep breathing calms the mind and releases feel-good drugs from the brain that circulate throughout the nervous, endocrine and limbic systems, affecting how we feel. Deep breathing also circulates oxygen throughout the body, nourishing the blood and internal organs.
- Yoga is exercise.
Yoga gets us moving, gets the blood flowing and the lymph circulating. This is a good thing; we all need exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle.
- Yoga brings us into the present.
Focusing on the movement of the breath as we inhale and exhale is what differentiates yoga from exercise. (Not that there’s anything to disparage about exercise.) Yoga uses the body to work with the mind. Harnessing awareness on the breath trains the mind to stay in the present moment, difficult as that may be. Undoubtedly our minds wander here and there, remembering, fantasizing, planning and projecting one breath at a time before we come back to the present moment.
- Yoga can help us improve our diets.
As we start to feel better physically and mentally through regular yoga practice, we may become more discerning about what we put into our mouths. Who hasn’t had the experience of practicing after a night of over-indulgence in all the wrong stuff (fried food, too many cocktails…) and feeling god-awful on the mat the next day, hungover and stinking of garlic? Enough gnarly experiences like that and we start making different choices.
- Yoga helps us become stronger and leaner.
Many of us find we lose weight over time, in addition to becoming stronger and feeling fitter overall, as a result of a regular yoga practice. This is not to say that everyone should lose weight, rather that consistent physical practice can bring our bodies toward an optimal state of wellbeing in line with exactly what each of our specific bodies need.
- Yoga increases sensitivity.
Yoga is a journey of of increased sensitivity to oneself. By repeatedly returning to the mat, slowing down and pausing to take a breath, we start to become more self-aware. We become aware of our habitual patterns, which foot we step forward and back with, where our minds go when we’re trying to avoid an uncomfortable situation, what kind of judgments we make about ourselves. Such increased awareness can yield insights that are not always comfortable, but they’re an essential precursor to making meaningful change in behavioral patterns on the path toward more freedom and wellbeing.
- Yoga teaches us to stay.
Frequently yoga practice leads to uncomfortable places where the urge to bail is strong. Intense and sometimes unpleasant sensations often show up on the yoga mat. Think screaming thighs and tight hips! The practice teaches us to stay and breathe through it, to stop wasting energy resisting, to soften into now.
- Yoga is about surrender.
Surrender to the present moment, to sensation, to the body’s limitations. Off the mat, to the machinations of a world that we cannot control.
- Yoga grows the brain.
Plasticity is the brain’s ability to reconfigure itself, to establish, as well as, dissolve connections between its different parts. Learning a new language causes the brain to reorganize and grow new connections between different parts, as does acquiring any new skill. Yoga is both learning a new language (the poses are like words and how they are sequenced is grammar, and just as you can’t speak without breath, you can’t practice yoga, either) and acquiring a new skill. This is good news for all of us concerned with mental agility and maintaining optimal brain health.
- Yoga breeds resilience.
Rebounding in the face of life’s travails, dealing with stress, keeping on when the going gets rough—all are types of resilience. Yoga fills our engines with extra fuel at such stressful times as we remember to utilize the yogic tools of deep breathing, responding instead of reacting, witnessing our own behavioral patterns and coming home to our innate equanimity and presence.
It takes time. Sustained practice is key.
Author: Dearbha Kelly
Editor: Evan Yerburgh
Image: Courtesy of the author