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Don't Forget Why You Practice Yoga

Why do YOU do yoga?

I spent the holiday weekend studying with one of my favorite teachers, David Keil of YogAnatomy. In the first workshop of the weekend, he asked a class of 30 students, “Why do you do yoga?” Here are some of the answers:

  • Stillness
  • Quiet
  • Mental clarity
  • Self-study
  • Self-acceptance
  • Connection with God
  • Enlightenment (all of us laughed at that one.)

What’s not on the list might be the most surprising to you:

  • Flexibility
  • Strength
  • Anything fitness related at all

In case you’re thinking this was a room full of teachers, it truly wasn’t. According to the host teacher, many in the class had only been practicing for a year or so. I spoke with a few people for whom this was their first yoga workshop, which just goes to show you that no matter why you first decide to step onto a yoga mat (and most of us do so for a physical reason), it doesn’t take long for yoga to shift gears and start to work at a deeper, more life-changing level.

It’s easy to lose sight of our reasons for coming to the mat.

This doesn’t mean that we (all of us) don’t periodically lose sight of the reasons we are practicing. After all, there are so many yoga postures to learn – many requiring physical prowess that we have been yearning for years to develop. When we’re hard at work chasing new skills on our mat, the real reasons (see above) for our practice can fade into the back ground. We can become so consumed by gaining openness or strength in certain areas of our bodies that we fail to turn inward at all. We find ourselves rolling up our mats and judging our practice by our success or failure in that sought after posture.

There are injuries and illnesses and other physical setbacks to navigate. I don’t know anyone who practices yoga who hasn’t experienced such a period. When we are focusing on healing our body, it is easy to disconnect from yoga’s mental and spiritual gifts. Yes, the physical part of a yoga practice is wonderfully nurturing and healing. Indeed, the list of ailments I’ve witnessed it helping is long and varied – ruptured tendons, joint replacements, chronic diseases such a Lyme and Chrone’s, blood clots and recuperation from surgeries of many types. Yet again, we might find ourselves walking away from our practice judging it by how much of our former physical abilities we’ve lost or regained.

We all experience long periods of distraction and disturbance. That’s just the nature of life, right? We change jobs. Or move. Or split with a partner. Or lose a loved one. Or send our kids off into the great big world without us. In fact, I often wonder if our ancient yoga teachers weren’t responding to disturbances like this when they created the practice. When we’re unsettled mentally or emotionally, it feels good to lose ourselves for an hour or so in the simple world of the physical. You could even say that the space we get from our upset is healing. But, what we really need is to take a long hard look at what’s bothering us. We need to accept and experience these big, turbulent emotions to allow ourselves to pass through them and return to equanimity.

Always remember: Yoga postures are a means to an end.

In short, in the face of our human nature and life itself, it is surprisingly easy to forget that yoga postures are a means to an end. Please read that again. And again.

Yoga postures are a means to a much more meaningful end.

All the jumping around we do on our yoga mats is not yoga. It’s a part of yoga. (In another essay, I’ll get into the nitty gritty of how tiny a part of the practice it is. I’ve got solid arguments that it’s somewhere between 1/7th and 3/196th.) The postures (asana in Sanskrit) are a tool that yoga offers us to help us better experience the gift of our life. They are a tool that yoga offers us to help us live more like the people we yearn to be.

So, whether you are hard at work on your forward folds or at tucking your legs behind your head is irrelevant to the depth and power of your practice. If you step on your mat with the intention and hope to experience one or more of the items in the list above, you are doing yoga exactly, precisely as you are meant to. If you keep showing up, unrolling that mat to move and breath and focus, yoga promises (and I do too) that you will start to experience those intentions and hopes in the other 22 ½ hours of each day of your life.

That’s when you will truly know the power of this practice. And you’ll never, ever give it up. You might even experience enlightenment.

Come practice ALL of yoga with us. Click here for the Yoga With Spirit class schedule.