I started practicing yoga nearly four years ago, as a quiet college freshman, attempting to define my identity and trying a number of things out on the journey.
Almost immediately I felt like I had been brought into a different country—one with an overwhelming culture and flowery language.
“Shine your heart forward.”
“Float to the top of your mat.”
“Flip your dog if it’s in your practice.”
I spent most of the class in child’s pose, trying to nap the hour and fifteen away.
I felt excluded—like someone forgot to give me the yoga handbook on my first day. I promptly labeled myself a “non-yogi,” and checked that off my identity list.
A few years since, I’ve returned to the practice after some neck and back injuries, and I’ve discovered an entirely new yoga experience.
Since attending classes two to three times a week, I have seen and felt my body transform into something more aware, strong and beautiful. Yet outside of my physical condition, I’ve found that yoga has also influenced many of my personal beliefs and decisions.
There’s a reason many yoga teachers seem to float about the world in similar ways, and it is because of the ideology surrounding the practice—acceptance and gratitude.
Here are some of the ways I have found these ideals incorporating their way into my own life:
1. Be gentle with yourself.
I’ve made fun of the phrase “if it’s in your practice,” but that understanding has provided a load of comfort for me throughout this yoga journey. Everyone enters the class at different levels, depending on how long each person has practiced yoga, but also depending on how we feel that day.
Sometimes my hamstrings are tight, or my body just needs to rest. Rather than powering through and forcing an inversion pose anyway, I can just be where I am. This realization allows yoga to be what I need in that moment, rather than a fitness goal to attain.
Taking this mentality off the mat has allowed me to cope with a lot of postgraduate, real world stress. There are some days when I feel healthy, energized and strong—I can send out a dozen resumes and finally unpack from my college apartment. Yet, there are an equal number of days when I need to cry and watch True Blood.
Knowing when I can push myself and when I can be gentle is an invaluable skill and a crucial part of self-care.
2. Listen to your body.
I have never been one of those women who “knows her body”—when my period’s coming, when I’m getting sick or when something just isn’t right. Nope, none of that. Every migraine is a surprise, and every cramp is a mystery.
Yet yoga has brought me in closer contact with every muscle, joint and energy within me—showing me how to listen to my body and treat it right for a change. In yoga class, when a posture or a stretch hurts in a bad way, I am probably not ready for it yet. Both on the mat and off—if my heart is racing—I need to take a breath. If my shoulders hurt, I may be carrying stress or should perhaps fix my sitting posture.
And apparently, I never learned how to drink enough water—so learning to hydrate when my head twinges or when sluggishness creeps in has made me feel more awake in the mornings (and less like I am dying when I try to run).
3. “The Core” is key.
As the name suggests, our core muscles are extremely important to our overall strength and fitness. I used to view strong men and women as jacked-gym-dude-bros, who spent all their time lifting weights or fixing protein-heavy meals. However, now it feels amazing to me to grow stronger gradually—using my own weight and in my own time.
Take boat pose, for example—the bane of my existence. This pose moves our bodies into a V-shape, as we balance with our legs in the air and our arms open on either side. It’s a nightmare for the core muscles!
For months, my legs shook with weakness, and they gradually got lower and lower before collapsing. Yet gradually it became easier, and I could hold it for a second longer than before. This kind of core focus strengthens other muscles as well, and I find myself in so many crazy poses that I never could have trained for in the gym.
4. Don’t compare yourself to others.
This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn, both on and off the mat.
Yoga studios don’t typically have mirrors, and yogis are discouraged from looking around during class to compare their poses to others. Yoga is a process—each day brings us a little closer to achieving a posture until one day finally, unceremoniously we’re there.
Going back to boat pose, there was never one day it magically became easy for me—it has been a slow-going march toward my own satisfaction every day. Keeping this in mind, I’ve learned that each person works at their own pace, and we can’t compare one person’s practice to another.
Learning this lesson has made it easier to eliminate my own self-judgment, comparison and jealousy.
We are each in our own place—on our own journey—and my tendency to compare myself to others isn’t productive.
I don’t become “better” when I’m jealous of my roommate, best friend, co-worker or whoever—rather, I judge myself and wonder, “what’s wrong with me?”
I’m reminded of that (slightly overused) Oscar Wilde quote, “Be yourself—everyone else is already taken.”
Although I’m tired of reading that quote in high school yearbooks and such, it really has some truth to it.
Professionally, romantically and personally, we are each in our own place, and there’s no use in trying to detract from someone else’s success.