When we first practice yoga, we’ll probably feel a range of physical and mental benefits.
But it’s only when we dig a little deeper, past the physical poses, that we learn the most important lessons and skills yoga has to offer.
Contrary to the contemporary image of the practice, yoga is less about specific postures than it is about stilling the mind. At the core of yoga, first developed in India, is a suite of tools and practices that is meant to foster union—whether between your mind and body, or you and the world around you.
Those tools do include the physical postures known as asana. But yoga’s toolkit also includes breathwork, meditation, and ethical principles, among other practices. The full breadth of yoga is impossible to fit into a single article.
Here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my own decade-long practice:
1. Practice nonviolence
The first ethical principle of yoga is nonviolence, or ahimsa. It’s the foundation upon which the other teachings of yoga and yogic philosophy are built. And, more than that, the practice of yogic nonviolence is one that everyone should pay attention to.
Most of us may already think of ourselves as nonviolent people. But we need to consider that ahimsa extends far beyond avoiding or causing physical harm. Negative thoughts, words, and actions can cause harm too—both to others and, to ourselves.
The last point may be the most important. Try to think of all the times you were critical of yourself, your work, your relationships, or the life that you’ve built. These are as much of a violation of yogic nonviolence as physically harming another person.
Learn to accept, love, and be kind to yourself, exactly the way that you are. This is the hardest part, and it takes continual practice. But, once you are able to do it, practicing nonviolence toward others becomes natural.
2. Reconsider your breath
Anyone who has taken a yoga class knows how important the breath is to the physical practice. We move our bodies with our breath, attuned to its rhythms. This, I think, is why yoga can be so calming and restoring as a physical practice.
We can take that awareness of breath off the mat, however. The breath can be a friend in our day-to-day lives. It can be an anchor allowing us to reconnect to the present. It can serve as a reminder that, if we can control our breath, we can learn to control our thoughts and emotions.
As with nonviolence, this can be a tricky practice to start. It takes time and dedication to learn how to breathe mindfully. But the important thing is to start, and stay consistent. Just spend five minutes a day paying attention to your breath. When your mind inevitably wanders, just gently bring it back to the breath in the present moment. (Remembering, of course, to practice nonviolence toward yourself!)
There’s a reason why mindfulness and meditation has skyrocketed in popularity over the last few years. Although not exactly the same as yoga, both practices have common traits. And whether we stick with one or the other, the constant is that the breath can be a place of stillness, even in the most trying of situations.
3. Foster self-discipline
In yoga, there is an ethical principle called “tapas.” It can mean different things to different people, or different things to the same person at different points in their life. The root Sanskrit word means to “burn,” as in to burn off the impurities in our lives. Most commonly, this is through self-discipline, fiery passion, or courage.
Practicing tapas may be easy to wrap our head around, but it’s harder to achieve. It could be committing to meditating every morning at 5 a.m., even on the days we don’t feel like it. It could be following through on our promises, no matter what. Or it could be challenging ourselves by learning a new skill or taking on an experience that frightens us.
We may be tempted to see tapas as strict austerity or self-punishment, but it’s more useful to think of it as discipline emerging from love. In tapas, we don’t push ourselves to do something actively harmful. Instead, we balance the difficulty of maintaining discipline with kindness and nonviolence toward ourselves. (Remember ahimsa?)
In our modern day-to-day lives, we can practice tapas by committing and following through. Through the fire of self-discipline, we burn off what’s holding us back. We can continually learn and grow. Like a blade in the forge, we can come out sharper and stronger.
4. Learn to let go
One of my favorite quotes is a simple one, said to be a Zen proverb: “Let go or be dragged.” There is a lot of wisdom in those five words, though it may be hard to see at first.
In life, we have the tendency to grip and to cling. We hold onto partners and physical objects, we hold onto titles and achievements, we hold onto ideas of ourselves. These things can feel like life rafts in a stormy sea. But they can also hold us back and drag us down.
Learning to let go of what no longer serves us is a skill that must be practiced. It can be terrifying at times. But when we reach a place of nonattachment, we can move much more freely and gracefully through life. We no longer cling to a lifeboat beholden to the movements of the ocean—we’re free to swim as we please.
This can be manifested by decluttering our closet or saying goodbye to a relationship or job that has become toxic. Perhaps most importantly, we should let go of the images or ideas of ourselves that are no longer in our best interests. Beyond that, we can also practice non-attachment toward the things we actually love. We can love without clinging to the people, objects, and ideas that bring us joy. If we love something, we need to be willing to let it go. What really matters will return to us.
5. Strive for contentment
The hardest lesson of yoga, at least personally, is staying content. In the West, so much of our lives is built upon the idea that we should never be satisfied. There is always a goal to achieve, and once we achieve it, there will inevitably be something else to strive for. We are always chasing something that we believe will bring us fulfillment. We don’t stop long enough to realize that it never does.
Ambition and striving appear to be solid defenses against complacency or “settling,” but they can also be a detriment to happiness. The fulfillment we seek isn’t in the fancy degree, or the ideal job, or the dream partner, or the constant pursuit of self-improvement. Fulfillment is within us. It always has been.
That’s a bit esoteric, so let’s bring it back to practical terms. The happiest people in the world have simply learned to be happy with what they have, no matter how little that may be. I’m not saying we need to toss out our dreams or ambitions. But being in continual pursuit of our goals keeps us from appreciating what we already have.
Like the other lessons of yoga, contentment does not come easily. I like practicing gratitude to cultivate it. Every day, write down two or three things that you are grateful for. Meditate on these things. Once you find a sense of happiness in what you have and who you are, you can move toward your goals from a place of contentment and acceptance.