Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned on My Yoga Mat – Roz Lambeth, Yoga Journal, April 2012
Many people come to yoga for the exercise benefits. And they are plentiful, from gaining strength and flexibility, to reducing blood pressure, losing weight, improved immune response, a decrease in menopause symptoms… The list goes on. But anyone who sticks with the practice will eventually find that the benefits from yoga are much more profound and often unexpected than they thought.
When you continue to practice you don’t just get fit and healthy, you get to know your body from the inside. You develop a relationship with your body. And then you discover that the things that you learn about your body on your yoga mat are directly transferable to your daily life. Following are some of the insights my practice has given me:
1. Pay Attention
The small things matter. On the Mat: Your yoga teacher will give instruction on making the smallest imperceptible adjustments to your body in a pose. Things which no one else can see but you can feel. At first you’ll think she’s nuts, “She wants me to do what with my arches?” “How can I lift up and press down at the same time?” But these things make all the difference. Once you “get” a pose it is these small details that bring it to life. In Life: Most of us get the big things. We do our jobs, we take care of our families, we build friendships. But when we pay attention to the small details, the things that might go unnoticed on the surface, that’s when we bring in new business, increase harmony at home, and deepen lasting friendships. Things like taking the time to listen and respond, saying thank you, doing a little more than was expected, keeping promises … you know, generally paying attention; these things make all the difference. It is the imperceptible adjustments that bring your life to life.
2. Let Go
On the Mat: We learn when moving into a deep stretch that we make more progress by letting go than we do by pushing. Breathe, relax, and let go. That is when the pose magically appears. Physiologically it makes sense; when you push, there is a natural reflex that causes your muscles to tense to protect from injury. When you breathe, relax, and let go, you allow the pose to come to you. In Life: We push for more. We struggle to make ends meet. We chase the illusive dream. No matter what we have, we seem to want more. But if we slow down, breathe and relax, we find that not only do we already have everything we need, but also whatever it is we think we’ve been chasing can finally catch up to us.
3. Hold On
I know what you’re thinking; I just told you to let go. Now I’m telling you to hold on. Both can be good strategies but at different times. Learning the difference is key. On the Mat: There are poses that will test your strength and your resolve. Just when your legs are screaming from discomfort and you don’t think you can hold that chair pose another moment your yoga teacher calmly says “Just five more breaths…” Like it’s nothing. And the breaths she wants you to take are excruciatingly slow. But over time, and with practice you eventually learn to “sit with the discomfort.” You learn that it is just that, discomfort. You direct your attention to your breath, or your arms, or anything but your screaming thighs. And what you find is that you are stronger than you knew. Much stronger. You can endure. In Life: There are times that will test our resolve. Things that happen that seem unbearable, losing a job, a breakup, losing a loved one. Our first instinct is to find a way “out of the pose”. We medicate, drink, fill our lives with things, dive into our work, find any means to run away. When what we need to do to move on is to “sit with the discomfort.” Direct your attention to your breath, and find that you are stronger than you knew. Much stronger. Then just take the next step. You can endure and move on.
4. Just Breathe
On the Mat: Yoga is a mind/body discipline. The conduit that connects mind to body is the breath. We move in and out of poses with the breath. We learn to deepen our breath. We become aware. And through the breath even in our most relaxed states we find we can be vividly, wide awake. In Life: The breath is still the conduit that connects the mind to the body. In stressful situations a deliberate focus on a long exhale can reduce heart rate and stimulate the body’s own relaxation response. When relaxed and calm we are less likely to react from anger or frustration and make better decisions. Just breathe.
5. Bend, Don’t Break
Just like a pine tree sways in the wind, and skyscrapers are designed to sway just enough to keep them from breaking, we should be gentle in our judgments and learn to “go with the flow.” On the Mat: Yoga trains our bodies to be flexible. And it is that flexibility that will save us from injury in the other activities we enjoy. You have probably heard that many pro athletes are starting to practice yoga. They find it brings balance to their bodies, reduces the likelihood of injury, and improves performance. It teaches their bodies to bend, not break. And they can accomplish more in the game. In Life: Rigidity in our behaviour and thoughts can also cause us to break. We may break relationships with people who don’t think or behave like we do. Many parents push their kids away by being too rigid and trying to control behaviour. Friendships can be broken for the same reason. My daughter had a friend in 8th grade who broke off their friendship when she discovered that my religious philosophy was Buddhist and our family did not attend a regular church. She was rigid in her acceptance and missed out on friendship in the name of God. In work situations we tend to gravitate towards people who are like us, and may miss out some great collaboration that come from diversity of thought. But when we learn to bend our thinking, relax our judgments, accept people for who they are, and recognize that everyone has a special set of “gifts” they bring to the table, we can accomplish things we never thought possible.
6. Be Kind
We know the sayings: “No guts, no glory”, “Balls to the wall”, “Leave it all on the field”, “Pain is weakness leaving your body”, all the things that tell us if we don’t give 110%, we’re just not worthy. Or, more likely, we’re worthless. I am all for pushing the limits of what my body can do. I’ve ridden 200 miles on a bicycle in one day. I train to beat my last time on my regular course. I work on attaining certain yoga poses that aren’t yet in my wheelhouse. I get it. But we should all remember that our bodies have inner wisdom as well. If we don’t listen, we will never benefit from it. On the Mat: My teachers often offer several variations of a single pose. Most of them don’t use the words “beginning” or “advanced”. (But we all know which variations are the “advanced” ones.) But, let’s suppose I am in the bound version of a twisting lunge and my alignment is off, I can’t breathe, and I am not getting full extension; and the person next to me is not bound, but has a long line from foot to head, is breathing calmly with muscles engaged and a smile on her face. Who has the more advanced practice? Me, listening to my ego, or her, listening to her body? Recently, a bicycle wreck and resulting painful shoulder injury has caused me to “dumb down” my personal yoga practice. My inner wisdom (in this case, pain) has asked me to back off. I’m taking the “lesser” variations of poses. And I am finding that I often get more out of the pose in the lesser version than I would in the “advanced” version. In the “lesser” version I can hear my inner wisdom speak. Of course, this requires a great relinquishing of the ego as well. In Life: We tend to push our limits. We work too many hours a week, burn the candle at both ends, try to please and take care of everyone in our lives. We think we’re doing the right thing. And for a while it may work. But eventually our bodies will make us take a break. Through illness or injury or something, we will be forced to stop. At some point your body will try to tell you that it is time to take a break; You’ll start feeling tired, overworked, resentful, emotional … something. That’s when you should take a nap, a yoga class, sit for meditation, whatever rejuvenates you .
Your inner wisdom will tell you what you need. If you don’t listen, your body will eventually make sure you end up taking the time you need, and you will likely be forced to stop for a lot longer than you would have needed if you had taken the time yourself. And it will likely happen at the most inopportune moment.
So pay attention, let go, hold on, breathe, bend, and be kind to yourself. Develop a loving relationship with your body. Listen to what your body teaches you about how to move in and out of poses. Translate that wisdom into the events of your daily life. We are often provided with just the lesson we need at the time we need it. See what your practice has to teach you today.