11/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Lessons From Yoga Keep Coming

On my 40th birthday I was at a retreat center participating in my first ever yoga weekend which happened to be taught by the renowned Amrit Desai, the original yogi at the Kripalu Center in Mass. I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into, but it was a way to play with a friend of mine and do something new. In our first session we were directed to stretch out one leg in a particular, non-stressful manner, and then to check out the different lengths of our legs. I was absolutely amazed that the stretched leg felt yards longer than the other. I know this is no surprise to others who do such exercise, but at that moment I felt like magic had happened; that I was in Alice's wonderland where body parts changed size. I was in awe.

I became a yoga convert. And the lessons from yoga keep coming.

Lesson # 1: Being Present and in the Moment.
Yoga invites us to be present and in the moment. It raises awareness of when our mind is attentive to intention and our actions, and when our mind is roaming to a separate task. In our world of multitasking we are so often doing one task while thinking about another, and while this is sometimes necessary, it can cheat us out of satisfaction from what we are doing. Training in being present is important, because our presence is all we really have for being powerfully engaged in our lives.

Lesson # 2: Concentration
Yoga trains our concentration and is itself a meditation in mindfulness. We are invited to concentrate on breath and body sensation, and then notice how immediately we are thinking about the errands that we will do after....then we come back to attention to breath and sensation, training the mind to be singly focused.

Lesson #3: The Power of Our Inner Critic
In yoga we gain an opportunity to witness our Inner Critic and its influence on our behavior. A few weeks ago in yoga class we began to do balancing postures--standing on one leg while moving other parts of the body. I was feeling balanced until I looked around and saw class mates who were more supple and reaching further. All of a sudden my Inner Critic started talking to me. "You really are much too awkward" I heard myself say, and instantly I lost my balance. I left class thinking how often my critical inner voice has bullied me out my capabilities and diminished my stamina.

Our Inner Critic can so easily throw us off balance by sending us critical messages that interfere with our confidence. In a workshops I lead on Calming Your Inner Critic at the Kripalu Center in Stockbridge Mass we spend time exploring this phenomenon, witnessing the Inner Critic, and learning how to hold steady and resist its judgment.

Lesson #4: Self-Compassion
Yoga also offers an antidote to the Inner Critic --compassion. On a different day I might show myself compassion, and remind myself that while others in my class are more skilled, I'm doing the best I can, and feel proud of my middle aged persistence for flexibility. Likewise, on those days when my concentration is not available, I might simply notice that the day's errands hold more prominence than the purity of my posture, and say "oh well", and let it go. Sometimes I find myself in yoga class looking around seeing the diverse family of man, similar to looking at people in the New York City subway, or the grocery line, noticing the wonderousness of the many ways us human beings show up--- how different we are, and how remarkable it is that we make it through the complexities of our lives.

Lesson #5: Being Human Beings, Not Just Human Doings
Yoga class ends with a period of laying flat on the floor in shevasina, the "dead man's pose." Originally when I started doing yoga I thought this was a sad waste of time. I wanted to use my time constructively and get the full benefit from challenging my body. Doing nothing seemed silly. But shevasina is integration time when the mind/body lets the benefits of the poses settle in. It is silence for the body and a meditation in sensate experience. This suspension of "doing" is a missing salve in our time. It seems we've lost the ability to just sit with silence, to be with non-stimulation, to let our bodies digest experience. The end of class ritual of lying on the yoga mat in the posture of shevasana reminds us of how important it is to stop and savor our experience.

James Joyce opened Dubliners with the line, "Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body". I love that line. It speaks volumes to that experience of being disconnected from oneself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Yoga helps us uncover how close or far we are from being with ourselves, and helps us to close the gap. As I can too often relate to Mr. Duffy, the line is a good reminder for me to tune into myself and what's around me.
For more see