For decades, yoga has been gaining in popularity across the West, as more and more of us are finding in its benefits an antidote to the frenetic and unhealthy pressures of our lives.
I can understand the craze. If there is a single before and after in my own life until now, it’s the moment I started practicing yoga six years ago. Since then, my relationship to myself, my loved ones and the world have been completely transformed, in ways I would never have imagined at the start. I’d like to share this journey with you, because I genuinely believe that far too many of us — stressed, anxious, and detached from ourselves and our cherished few — could benefit enormously from the millennial wisdom that’s embedded within its practice.
What Yoga Taught Me About Myself, the World and Living Well
I have been a seeker and I still am, but I stopped asking the books and the stars. I started listening to the teaching of my Soul.
Working with our bodies, not against them
The first thing to know is that the word “yoga” derives from a Sanskrit term denoting “union.” This is an essential idea to understand, because it derives from an Eastern worldview that is completely opposed to the Western tradition. In the West, we think in terms of binary oppositions and hierarchies: we speak of mind over matter, of reason over emotion, and most especially, of humanity over nature.
Indeed, our entire social and economic systems are premised on this toxic idea of humanity’s conquest of nature, and we are now seeing the tragic consequences of this everywhere we turn. At a time when our societies have never been richer, we are suffering unprecedented epidemics of depression, suicide, anxiety, obesity, and other mental and physical illnesses linked to our inability to listen to our bodies (and souls), and take care of ourselves.
Rather than heed nature’s signals, we deprive ourselves of all the things we evolved over millions of years to need, from physical activity to nutrition, sleep to social connection. And this is to say nothing of the impact humanity is having on our planet and climate. They’re all different consequences of the same mind-over-nature mindset at work, where we speak loud and hold a big stick, instead of pressing our ear closer to learn.
By contrast, yoga is premised on the pursuit of a mind-body union, and of harmony between humanity and nature. It replaces the hubris of the Western mindset with a humility that recognizes our essential oneness with nature. For if we have learned one thing over time, it’s that despite all our delusions fed by the lure of short-term gains, in the long run, nature always wins.
Change the frame, change everything
Far from being purely academic, the philosophy of yoga is literally embodied within the practice, assuming you find the right teacher and style to suit your needs. Over time, a regular practice of two to three sessions a week can gradually integrate into your mind almost subconsciously, altering your mental and emotional mechanisms at the root. And once you change the way you perceive and interpret events and experiences in your life, you change everything.
For me, it completely transformed my life. I’m a fairly anxious and highly analytical person by nature and education, and the constant spinning of the wheels in my head often sent me spiraling in one direction: downwards. Yoga taught me to get out of my head, where I thought the source of the problems and solutions always lied, and to get into my body, which is where I focus my attention now when negative emotions arise. When I feel anxious or stressed, for example, my instinct now isn’t to sit in a corner analyzing them, but to take a walk, meditate and breathe, do some exercise, see friends, or do whatever I need to do to change the flow of chemicals through the body. Once I change the frame, the rest invariably follows.
To explain what I mean, let’s go through three mental habits that my yoga practice has instilled in me, illustrating with each the exact link between the practice and the mental reprogramming it sparked.
Self-knowledge through mindfulness
In my hatha yoga practice, I’m constantly looking inward to scan every inch and atom of my body; to ensure proper alignment and breathing in the postures, the fluid circulation of blood and oxygen through the body, and to check for any tensions or signals that I might be pushing myself too far and jeopardizing the above, or risking sprains or injuries.
The cumulative impact of this has been to condition me to always look inward, and by doing this, to notice the moment a new emotion or sensation arises. Over time, it became automatic for me, to the point where the inner signals speak so loudly now that I can’t ignore them.
This places you in the position of an observer, who watches and charts the tides as they rise and fall, yet without feeling the temptation to jump in. This mindfulness I’ve cultivated is one of the most powerful benefits of a regular yoga practice. Over time, the self-knowledge you will nurture through this mindset will equip you to live a life that’s more in harmony with your deeper self, and therefore happier and more fulfilled.
Self-love through compassionate observance
My yoga practice taught me not only to observe my body’s responses, but just as crucially, to do so without judging. Rather than feeling upset or disappointed with myself if I’m less flexible one day, for example, you learn to listen with curiosity and compassion, and to heed the body’s limits instead of ploughing through them. Over time, this method of patiently but persistently pushing up against your limits — and sometimes just past them, the better to demarcate where they are — will see them gradually expand over time. Your body will open up little by little, until one day, you find your body doing things you never thought would be possible.
The same thing goes with the mental habits. If one day I notice a greater sense of agitation or constriction in my chest, for example, I will seek to pay close attention to it, neither denying it nor getting frustrated with myself. The purpose is always to listen, and to learn. Just as with mindfulness, this constant pursuit of compassionate self-observance gradually percolated down into my mental bedrock, becoming integrated into all other aspects of my life. It taught me such primary virtues as self-love, patience, and the revolutionary power of cumulative micro-actions performed consistently over long periods of time.
Balance in everything
A third and final principle central to yoga is the very Eastern notion of balance. In a hatha yoga practice, every posture (or “asana”) is followed by a counter-posture — a forward bend is balanced by a back-bend, the left side with the right side, and so on — bouts of exertion are compensated by periods of rest and silent meditation, and depending on the pace and advancement of your practice, a foundation of meditation and rest is to be found within every posture as well. Every class I’ve ever followed begins with silent meditation, and ends with a prolonged period of rest in the lying-down pose known as “shavasana.”
This tenet of balance has perhaps become the most central guiding principle in my life. And while it may be a constant struggle to maintain this balance in a Western society that seems to glorify every kind of unhealthy imbalance, the mindfulness and self-love I’ve nurtured throughout my six years of practice has kept the inevitable periods of imbalance brief, the stresses and losses of perspective fairly fleeting, and the foundations beneath my feet firm even amidst trying times.