“Why do you do yoga?” is a question I am asked nearly every day. “Why do you do yoga?” is also a question I wish (oh, how I wish!) that I could easily answer.
The gifts of yoga are hard to define.
I, like most people, started practicing yoga as a way to take better care of my body. I teach runners who add a yoga class or two into their week to open their hips and hamstrings from all the time they spend in their sneakers. Weight lifters come to class to lengthen and open muscles that become shorter and tighter as they bulk up. Injured athletes turn to yoga as a healing therapy. People who have gotten away from exercising at all often come to class thinking that yoga will be a gentle way to reconnect with the physical side of themselves.
And yoga does all this. It makes us stronger and more flexible. It helps us develop endurance. And it is very healing.
But yoga does so much more than this. I suspect as you read that last paragraph you were visualizing toned muscles, loose hamstrings and the ability to sail through an entire class without breaking a sweat. I bet you were imagining back injuries, sore knees and carpal tunnel syndrome disappearing with a regular, dedicated practice.
But reread it. Yoga helps us develop inner strength and flexibility. It requires as much mental endurance as physical. And as many physical ailments as it heals (and I’ve yet to come across something it cannot help heal), the inner healing it supports is nothing short of miraculous.
In short, as good as yoga is for the body, as healing and as transformative as it is physically, that is just the tip of the iceberg.
The rest of the iceberg, though, is what makes yoga difficult to describe.
As we move in synchronization with our breath on our yoga mat, we are connecting our mind and body. We are integrating our less-tangible feelings and thoughts with our very tangible movements and physical sensations. As we move and breathe on our mats, we are (often for the first time in a very, very long time) functioning as a whole. We are learning to tune back into the wisdom of our gut reactions, our instincts and our dreams, and not to always defer to all that we’ve learned from our studies. We are practicing something called contemplation.
“Contemplation” is often misconstrued. When we practice yoga, we are not becoming “lost in thought.” Just the opposite. We are “considering with attention” to borrow from Merriam Webster’s definition of the word. What we are contemplating varies from person to person. Yoga’s creators suggest that we contemplate God – our relationship with God and God’s place in our daily lives. In my own journey as a student and a teacher, I have concluded that it (almost) doesn’t matter what someone is contemplating. What matters is that we enter that contemplative state and get accustomed to being there.
In this state, we spend time and energy learning to love and accept ourselves. Over time, this flow of gentle love and acceptance begins to change us. We become mindful, patient and persistent. We become as comfortable with failure as we are with success. As we watch ourselves grow and change, we become hopeful and optimistic about others changing too. As our teacher shows us different ways to move into a yoga posture, we become more willing to entertain other approaches to almost everything. Our edges become a little softer even as our passions and drive become stronger.
When your friends ask “Why are you so dedicated to yoga?” “Why do you go to class so often?” “How does yoga make you feel?” you will probably, like me, find it’s difficult to answer them. After all, “to contemplate” feels like a strange and imprecise answer. Plus, for ages and ages, I’m not sure I even knew what contemplation was, let alone that I was doing it.
With or without the word contemplation, it’s hard to speak specifically about the way you feel your concentration and focus improving – that you are less distracted and less prone to wander off into your daydreams and worries. It’s hard to clearly describe how you suddenly feel curious about other cultures, other faiths and other opinions. How you feel less inclined to argue and more inclined to listen. How you feel less a need to be right and more a need to connect. How you find that, though your principles feel rock solid, you have lost all sense of certainty that your way is the only way. It’s hard to convey how old heartaches, ancient slights and even habits and assumptions you’ve carried with you for years have slipped away.
It’s hard to fathom (let alone describe) that what started as a way to take care of yourself has yielded something more. Not only do you feel better, but you are finding yourself better able to take care of those around you. That in addition to feeling calmer and quieter yourself, you now hope with all your heart that you’re contributing less noise and clutter to our hectic world. That by looking within yourself, you have glimpsed how astoundingly special and unique you are. And that, in that same glimpse, you have also seen that you are an infinitesimally tiny part of a staggeringly huge whole. Special? Yes! The center of the universe (or even of this moment)? Good Lord, no!
It’s hard to fathom. But this is exactly what happens no matter why you first wander onto a yoga mat.
So, the next time you unroll your mat to breathe and move, contemplate the fact that as you heal and change (and you will, without a doubt, heal and change), you are also healing and changing the world around you.