I guess now that we're firmly ensconced in January, those New Years Resolutions are starting to burn out. I noticed it in my Saturday morning yoga class. What had previously been a space packed with eager newcomers only the week before had now petered out to just us regulars again. We nodded to each other as we unrolled our mats, silently acknowledging our mutual ongoing dedication. I was saddened by the sudden decrease in attendees, however. It meant that some people might never learn or benefit from yoga, and share what has been a life changing experience for me.
I imagine that people first approach yoga for a variety of reasons and desires, each uniquely their own. My first "aha" moment was in San Francisco during a work trip, where I agreed to accompany my boss to an early morning class before flying home. As a regular gym-goer, this was the first time I visited an actual yoga studio and was immediately struck by the differences of environment: walls painted in bright, vibrant colors, the soft yet spicy waft of incense, gentle low chants playing from speakers. As class began, I became hooked to the energy in the room, the graceful strength required to flow and hold poses, the way that my mind seemed to quiet even as my body was waking up. The next morning I felt pain in muscles I didn't even know I had, and I signed up for a studio membership the very next day.
My yoga practice hasn't always been a love affair, however. This is mainly because the first few years were approached with the same methods in which I managed everything in my life at that point: with drive, intensity, and massive frustration when I couldn't master what I wanted. As time passed, certain things started to happen as I had hoped they would: I became stronger. More flexible. My sleeping habits improved. The way I looked at things began to change, and without knowing it, my practice itself started to change. When I stopped competing with other people in the room and started listening to myself, I received three gifts from yoga that I wasn't expecting at all.
1. The Physical. I expected certain physical benefits to come from yoga and as mentioned before, they have- but it is the connection to my body that was completely unexpected. A sudden injury several years ago (more about that here) left me feeling bereft and confused. I had never felt so disconnected from my body before. During this time in my life, my mat became an oasis. The time spent in practice was time spent looking inward, unknowingly forgiving my body for how it was feeling- and by extension, finding space to heal and recover. The sensitivity and awareness I have now with my body is something that still surprises me- how I can immediately feel and respond to tightness in my neck, shoulders, back and hips. How my posture has improved. How my breathing has changed. I never expected that and find gratitude in it everyday.
2. The Mental. I hoped that yoga would slow down my brain and relieve stress, which it has- but not in the way I was expecting. I like to explain this by using tree pose as an example (which happens to be one of my favorite poses): Imagine your body is a tree. Your head and arms are the branches at the top, while your heart is the trunk that connects to the roots. When the world around you is stormy and wild, your mind can blow all over the place, just as a tree's branches do. But when you retreat into your heart, you will find stability, calmness and strength until the storm dies down. Basically, yoga taught me how to find a mental retreat from the constant hurricane of thoughts and ideas happening inside my head.
3. The Spiritual. This is the hardest to explain, as I don't want to offend and I don't want to trivialize. Yoga is not a religion, but for many it can be a spiritual path. The very essence of yoga is about "union", or bringing your body, mind, and spirit together in harmony. I am not religious; therefore I was the last person to expect a spiritual side effect to come from my yoga practice. But it has. It's not something that I experience in every class- in fact, it's rare and rather special- but when you have that sudden connection with your spiritual self (especially when you didn't know it was even there)- it's a shocking and surprising revelation, and one that is intensely personal.
How yoga impacted my life is not necessarily how it may feel to someone else. But isn't that the cool part -- that we each get to find our own personal experience? In fact, for other people, it might not even be yoga at all. Maybe for you it comes from running, or dance, or sport. But at the end of the day, what brings us all together is the practice. Which means that as we grow and learn and change, it will too. And perhaps that is the most unexpected gift of all.