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Six ways yoga changed my life.
(And no, it’s not all about being flexible.)
It is early in the morning here in India. I’m still a bit jet lagged and I haven’t slept much, so I’m struggling to keep my eyes open.
I’m in a long queue waiting to be called in to my yoga shala (yoga home or abode) for the class to begin. After about an hour, my teacher calls us in and then, one by one, we take off our shoes and enter.
This is India, so there are always smells of cooked food floating by, waking up my taste buds. Before coming here, I had a small breakfast and brushed my teeth, and in my sleepy state, I can still taste the mint toothpaste.
It is still dark outside, so it’s a sudden shock as I enter the well-lit room. I find my spot and position my black mat neatly in between two others, one red and one purple. In this light, I look around the room and see my fellow students, each on their colourful yoga mats. There are about 100 of us in the class today.
Everyone is now waiting for the class to begin. I look in the direction of my teacher. He’s in his office waiting for us all to settle. When he sees we’re all there, he steps out, stands in front of us, waits for us all to stand at the front of our mats, and with a loud voice he chants an echoing, skin-tingling Om.
I feel the vibrations throughout my whole body. I’m awake now.
In response and in unison, we all respond with our own Om. But not just any Om. It’s a deep and beautifully voiced sound from me and the other 100 people present in the room—and it’s in moments like this that I know I’m exactly where I want to be.
As normal as these moments now are in my life, it is not at all what I expected to be doing. Yet here I am, traveling to India every year to practice with my teacher, Sharath Jois, in Mysore, India.
Yoga has changed my life. I know this phrase is a bit of a cliché. But for me, it is true.
I was completing my PhD when my life was suddenly turned upside down. Disaster after disaster led to my “survival mode” being switched on. I was dealing with a bad breakup, an ill father, a renovation from hell, and the agony of trying to complete my PhD. When it rains, it pours, right?
What happens to the body when we are stressed?
Stressful situations may vary, from work and family difficulties to never-ending traffic jams. When we experience such stressful situations, the body enters the “fight-or-flight” response, helping us fight off the threat or flee to safety. This response triggers a combination of physiological changes that can make our heart pound, our breathing quicken, and our muscles tense. Sound familiar?
This response is totally normal. In fact, it evolved as a survival mechanism, allowing us to react quickly to life-threatening situations.
Unfortunately, over time, the repeated activation of the stress response can take a toll on the body, leading to high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and addiction.
From an early age, my stress went directly to my stomach: tensing, cramping, bloating, extreme pain, unable to digest, and unable to stand up properly. I know I wasn’t alone in this, as stomach problems are one of the most common symptoms of stress.
Research has indeed shown that when we are anxious, hormones and chemicals released by our body enter our digestive tract, and thus interfere with digestion.
Now here is the interesting thing. During my most troubled time, when problem after problem was blowing up around me and I was at my most vulnerable, my stomach was fine. I actually felt very healthy. How is that, you may ask?
Well, during this troubled time, I already had an established daily yoga practice and I know it’s what kept me sane, kept my stress levels at bay, and gave me the motivation I needed to get through each day as calmly as possible.
Here are the six ways yoga changed my life:
1. A regular yoga practice can help limit the immediate trigger of the stress response, and in turn, help the body move away from the “fight-or-flight response.”
By learning how to slow down our breathing, we are able to push the brain away from the stress response. I found this to be true, and frequently notice how there is now a delay in my response to stressful situations. Before, when stress would kick in, my breathing and my stomach would immediately react. Now, I take a few deep breaths, and with a calm and rational mind, I go on to deal with the situation.
2. For regular students, a yoga shala eventually becomes a home away from home.
It’s a place where we feel welcome, accepted, and loved. My yoga shala where I practiced every morning was a special space for me. I felt calm there. I felt safe. I left my shoes and my problems at the door. This is where I came to breathe, feel alive, and recharge my batteries. Then after practice, with a clear and calm mind, I was ready to face the day—the good days and the bad.
3. In my opinion, it requires a special type of person to become a yoga teacher.
Someone with patience, someone who has faced their fair share of problems, and someone who can create a safe environment—this is what makes a yoga teacher. My teacher was my constant presence. Her being there day in and day out, guiding me in and out of postures, became a constant in my life. She was the calm and guiding presence I so desperately needed.
4. The community of people I met through yoga is slowly becoming my extended international family.
I now travel a lot to practice with teachers all over the world. This gives me the opportunity to share my existence, problems, passions, and thoughts with people from around the world. The beautiful thing about this global family is that these people are of all ages, religions, and backgrounds. What is even more beautiful is that more often than not, these people have also found yoga to help them navigate through life, and so many common life stories emerge.
5. My teenage years were filled with body image issues.
I would rather not put a label on myself, but I will say that I was always skinny. However, in my mind I wasn’t skinny enough. My body was this physical form that didn’t live up to what I found to be beautiful in magazines.
Looking back at old photos it pains me to see how disillusioned I was. The way I now perceive my body though my yoga practice is more like a tool, rather than a physical form. I sleep well, eat well, and don’t drink alcohol—and my body responds to this and helps me feel healthy, light, and strong at the same time. And yes, when I look in the mirror I now like what I see.
6. My love for yoga eventually led me to teach this incredible practice.
Following my teacher’s example, I have tried to create a space for everyone to feel welcome, safe, and comfortable. A place where shoes and problems are left at the door. A space so needed in our hectic and busy lifestyles.
Four years have gone by since I was in my survival mode. Upon reflection, it’s worth pointing out that the bad breakup I was dealing with, well, he is now a good friend. My dad never did recover, but I know his soul is resting in peace. The renovation from hell is now a beautiful flat. And the PhD I was trying to complete is now framed in my living room.
If I were to recommend one thing:
Find something that makes your soul happy, whatever that may be. For me it is yoga. For someone else, it may be painting, or cooking, or long walks.
Find something that you love and try to fit it into your life, even just a few minutes a day or every other day. Why? Because these few minutes may end up changing the rest of your life.