Why practice yoga?

Earlier this year, I embarked on a new challenge: 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training. I have been practicing yoga for many years now, and I wanted to take my practice to a deeper level, and explore teaching.

Having spent 4 weeks teaching on a Women’s Empowerment programme in Kerala, India, last October, although I thoroughly enjoyed the food (and wrote about it in my food guide to Fort Kochi ) teaching was something which I thoroughly enjoyed, and the experience of volunteering helped me to understand that teachers come in many forms: whilst I may not be an expert in women’s empowerment in southern India, I did have a set of experience and knowledge that I was able to share which added value to the women I worked with.

When the opportunity to sign up for Yoga Teacher Training came up soon after I jumped at the opportunity. I could see that teaching yoga offers a means to go deeper into my practice, as well as develop practical skills like communicating to a group, leadership, reflect on my sense of purpose and direction in life, along with much more.

The first essay we were asked to write was “Why do you practice yoga?” Below is my response to that question, and I hope that by sharing my experience it offers you a little perspective, whether that be on your own yoga practice or on the power of sustained commitment to any kind of practice over time.

Beginning

I have my journal in front of me with a myriad of ideas scrawled across the page, notes summarising the many reasons I practice yoga, but no idea where to begin in formulating these into a coherent essay. So, I ask myself: if writing were a yoga practice, how would my approach be different? Almost instantly, a phrase I have heard this morning comes to mind: “Progress over perfection”. On reflection, I think for Yoga, the phrase “Practice over perfection” would be more appropriate. So, I begin.

Looking at my scrawls, the concept which jumps out to me is that the practice of Yoga has become my teacher, and I have learned to become an eternal student. I do not see space for perfectionism in Yoga, and I do not believe ‘perfect’ can exist within Yoga – a perfect what? Pose? Outwardly, maybe we can reach perfect alignment, but it says nothing of our inner journey, of our life, of the stilling of the mind.

Through practice, the physical changes I have experienced have been minor, relative to the shift in consciousness. And through practice, I have become more aware and conscious of the entirety of the human experience.

(Ex)change

In our modern lives, it is easy to see our society as a series of ‘exchanges’, of trades and trade-offs.

This shows in attitudes to food: ‘you can eat this if you do this’; you are ‘permitted’ to eat if you go for a run; you can have a ‘cheat day’ on the weekend if you eat perfectly during the week; sugar and fat are ‘naughty’ whilst acai bowls and juice fasts are ‘good’….

As a person who has always experienced a slim body, can eat almost anything without seeing a noticeable change in weight, and with no history of disordered eating, until relatively recently I thought that these attitudes had no impact on me.

Now, I see that these ideas are part of the pattern woven into the fabric of our societies and leave us feeling disconnected from our bodies. These ideas have at their core that our bodies become something separate to the self, to be used to present an outward appearance of the self, and as such becomes a battleground, where no amount of restriction or time in the gym or pounding the pavement will be enough. Yoga has taught me the opposite to this.

In yoga, we start where we are. We show up for ourselves on our mats and work from where we are on that day. Teachers often say some notion of “leave your thoughts at the door” at the start of class, which is well-intentioned as it helps students to let go and release those fluctuations of the mind which are not serving them and focus attention on the mat, but a teacher of mine said recently that she doesn’t believe in that notion, as we cannot repress our thoughts or force them in a box which we can then ignore. Rather, we arrive at the mat a product of our experience, so part of the practice is accepting that, both emotional and mentally as well as physically.

Through yoga then, the body becomes an integrated part of the human experience, along with our mind and soul. The body becomes a means through which we can better understand what the ’self’ is and begin to make sense of our experience through life.

Through the body, we witness our energy levels fluctuate with the changing states of our lives: with stress, with joy, with rest, with restlessness, these changing states become familiar to us and part of our experience.

For me, as I have practiced yoga and become more aware of the part of myself which is the ‘witness’ (perhaps the atman or the purusha), I have started to notice these fluctuations, and rather than get caught up with trying to fix them, accept them as part of my experience, which in turn shapes how I come to practice.

I am currently reading the book “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle, and I was struck by this quote:

“I thought that happy was for feeling and that pain was for fixing and numbing and deflecting and hiding and ignoring. I thought that when life got hard, it was because I had gone wrong somewhere.”

Untamed, by Glennon Doyle

I suspect reading this a few years ago, before Yoga had become such a central component of my life, this quote would not have resonated with me. But through the practice of Yoga, I have learned to accept that all parts of our experience are valid, there are not parts of the self to cling to and parts of the self to avoid. In Patanjali’s sutras, these obstacles come in the form of attachment and aversion, both equally causing suffering.

It is through this acceptance we can begin to (re)connect and (re)integrate our intuition, our sense of self (our personal power, or energy through the third chakra).  By connecting to, listening to and trusting in our own bodies, we can begin to connect to, listen to and trust our entire self.

Joy

Yoga equally does not claim to avoid ‘doing’ in favour of ‘being’, but rather is teaching me to discern the two. Yoga asana does not ask us for one or the other; there is a physical skill and a progression; a pathway to follow. Yoga presents a mixture of easy and challenging postures, which through repetition over time, become easier, and become clear markers against which we can see our body becoming stronger, more flexible, and move with more ease. For some who are flexible and strong already, the challenge is the discipline, the continued practice, and the inner challenge of connecting with the body through movement.

Yoga also has a fun, playful side. Most adults have not turned their bodies upside down since childhood, and handstands and headstands can offer a child-like exploration of the body. Through acceptance of the challenge to learn these postures, we can then off the mat, start to explore the world and accept the process of learning is neither linear nor easy, but within the process itself we can find joy and liberation.

Yet, none of this was evident when I first began practicing Yoga. For many, yoga arrives in their life and instantly transforms them. Perhaps a friend takes them to a class, or they’re advised to practice yoga for health reasons or because they can’t play a sport they want to due to injury, and they immediately discover a beautiful, calm, relaxed feeling in the body and mind after class, and become hooked.

For me, I enjoyed the feeling of yoga, but the practice came and went for many years. I would practice for a short while maybe if there was a class local to me or a friend was going, but I always felt too busy, that it didn’t give me immediate ‘results’ like going to the gym.

It took a long time for these ideas to connect and make sense to me. Some of these ideas and ‘aha’ moments came in the midst of yoga class, but many of them began to integrate only once I started practicing regularly, and I was exposed to more ideas around yoga through books and meditation practice. Perhaps a large part of this was the cultural conditioning, of a capitalist world that rewards above all productivity and outcome.

Practice over Progress over Perfect.

There is an expression that we overestimate what we can do in a year but underestimate what we can do in a decade. This is true in my yoga practice, in that I have overestimated what yoga could offer me in the short term but underestimated what yoga could offer me in the long term.

For many years I saw Yoga as a short-term idea: I thought yoga would offer me physical changes and maybe some improvement in my mental health as a bonus, if I were lucky. Yet, looking back over the past decade, I see yoga had teachings for me that were beyond my awareness, and the changes it brought were not in demonstrable flexibility or strength or inversions (although they have come too) but to a more honest, holistic sense of health, in my body, mind, and through my life.

Connection

More recently, as I have begun to study the sutras and the philosophy of yoga through the teacher training, I have seen many ideas I have formulated over the past decade begin to come together, to help me see meaning in what can often feel a meaningless existence.

I see how my yoga practice has connected me to a community of seekers: seekers of meaning, of a better way of living, of inner harmony through a collective experience.

This is where the power of yoga lies: through our own practice, we integrate the disparate parts of the self, and in doing so bring our lives into harmony with those around us.

This is a powerful place to be, it is the space where we can leave the world a better, more peaceful, and compassionate place than it was when we arrived.  

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