Why Yoga?

I was in a meeting at the YMCA and this woman was trying to convince me to try PiYo. She referred to it as yoga on steroids as if that is the very thing that would make take her class. I replied, “I’m not into fitness.” Given that I’m a fitness instructor at the YMCA and this was a meeting all about improving our classes, that seemed a bit odd. I added, “I got into yoga for the mental benefits.” At that moment I realized, that is exactly why I love and stick to yoga.

I’m not there for a fit and beautiful body. I’m not there to stave off death. I come to my mat because it is the place where I can find peace. That being said, a good many people come to my classes for fitness reasons. That is an acceptable reason, it’s how I got started. I was told it was exercise that would reduce my anxiety. What I learned was that as exercise it has no impact on my anxiety. However, as a mindfulness activity, it does. Because my thoughts are so scattered and easily distracted I do a challenging physical practice in order to stay in the moment. Staying in the moment followed by savasana where I can absorb my practice is what reduced the anxiety.

I suppose to the goal oriented person it’s “mission accomplished.” Yoga isn’t a goal though. A person can make a goal, “I will be able to do crow pose,” but that isn’t going to sustain a peaceful calm outside of the moment when the goal is accomplished. Practice does. I think if a person set a goal for crow pose and got there and more importantly focused on the breath, the physical sensation and awareness of emotions, that is what will carry him or her after they’ve exited the pose and the studio. Maybe the next few weeks is dedicated to perfecting that pose (to his/her ability, not actual perfection) and each time that person settles into the entirety of it he/she learns discomfort should not induce fear. Over time anxiety slips away. Practice, repeated challenges to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system teach the body and mind how to cope with difficulty.

Somewhere in all the years I’ve been practicing yoga I learned that perfect, accomplished, graceful, beautiful body, strength and such like are not motivators for me. Competition doesn’t motivate me either. Comparisons hurt. Once the teacher offered that if Wheel is in our practice to do it. As a child I could do backbends so I tried it. Turns out I could. The teacher said something about herself not being able to do it. I thought how is that possible? You’re strong, slender, flexible, and practice every day. I ended up thinking I made her feel bad and like I was showing off. As a teacher I once voiced admiration for someone who was taking poses deeper and into more flexible regions. I never saw her again. Later I thought, oh, I singled her out. Maybe she wanted to practice mindfully and I took her out of it. Maybe she didn’t want the attention. Yoga isn’t an Olympic sport. It isn’t gymnastics though it often appears that way. It’s a mental exercise, kinda like when they say meditation is taking your brain to the gym.

For me yoga is also spiritual. This doesn’t mean worship, no conversion to a religion alien to my upbringing. My grandmother thought because there was chanting it must be Devil worship and made her sister stop yoga back in the 1970’s. I guess she never heard that Christian monks do this, daily. I mean yoga is spiritual in the sense of seeking answers to questions about the self. That can also mean the Self with a capital letter. In Eastern philosophy the Self is considered both individual and part of the universal whole. I Am That (the chant hamsa) is a way to bring attention to what is deep inside us while at the same time connects us to everything around us. It helps to bring about a perception shift, it takes me away from the perception that the world revolves around the lower case self.

It seems like a strange concept that what is real is the one thing that never changes. If I live and die then that isn’t real. What is real is life itself, that energy that is the whole universe, the life that is shared at birth, that extends to even the trees, that exists always just not always in the same form.

Alas I am human. I constantly return to the idea that the world revolves around me, therefore I constantly must practice my yoga to remind myself that it isn’t about my body or even my mind, it’s finding peace with the fact that I am a continuation of life even when my individual life has ended.

When I shift my perception to the idea that what I feel is simply emotion and it changes therefore it isn’t real, I find an underlying peace in my life.

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