This coming September will mark 20 years that I’ve been practicing yoga.
Except for a two-year period where I hit a major wall and said, “I’m done. F*ck yoga. I am going to play tennis, drink beer, watch TV, and be a regular person.” Besides that, I have practiced most everyday over this time.
After so many years and so many thousands of hours of practice, I figured it might be time to finally admit to myself why I practice.
I began yoga as a sophomore in college because my best friend and tennis partner said he was going to a class and I could only think, “Well, there’s no way you are and I’m not!” The local gym advertised yoga, and I believe I went that week.
I will never forget walking out of that first class. I wasn’t angry. My heart felt free and for possibly the first time, I actually liked myself.
I wound up practicing in my room when I woke up the next morning and have continued to do so ever since.
I have never been the most flexible person, but I’m certainly not the tightest, either. I have played with the advanced poses, gotten my foot to the back of my head, and I can do a full split. Still, after so many years, I have finally come to the realization:
I practice yoga for mental health.
Since I can remember, I’ve experienced some sort of internal struggle. Perhaps it was my mom’s two divorces and being separated from men that were important to me. Perhaps it was doing way too many drugs as a late teen and having one too many bad trips. Whatever it is, my mind tends to lean toward a little anxiety and a depression. On days I don’t practice, those tendencies have more potential to arise and dominate my experience. On days that I do practice, normally, they are kept at bay and not overwhelming.
I am not sure where I would be without yoga, but we can never fully know the path we did not travel.
Since coming to this realization about why I go to the mat every day, my practice has changed in a way it never has before. I am aware of why I am practicing and what my needs are. I am doing less standing poses and spending more time on the floor. I am taking care of my spine, vertebra by vertebra, to see what moves and what doesn’t. And except for a couple arm balances for fun and a strong backbend from time to time, I am not concerned with “deepening my practice by becoming more flexible.” I go to the mat to offer to my mind (and body) what it needs to be nourished and taken care of in that moment.
The funny thing is, I am getting stronger. My nerves feel more solid. My brain feels clearer and my heart gentler. My practice is shorter. I am taking anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour-and-a-half, which is half of my previous time. That pressure I have felt for so many years to practice is gone.
In its essence, yoga is a system that expands the awareness and consciousness, while mobilizing the body. It has always done that for me, but not like this. Each moment on the mat is an opportunity to connect to my emotions, the energetics I’m experiencing, what parts of my body need strengthening, and what parts need loosening.
It feels very satisfying, and I am grateful for this phase of my ever changing practice.
Author: Jory Serota
Editor: Travis May