Yoga studios are crawling with raving lunatics. I should know. I was one of them and looked every bit the part: a rail-thin-rubber-bandy-raw-vegan-meditating-twice-a-day-yogi. While I could twist myself into a pretzel, it was only after tumbling off my mat that I began to embody what yoga truly means. Turns out perfect balance, inner peace, and abiding joy have little to do with how much kale I ate and everything to do with my attitude toward life.
The real practice of yoga occurs off the mat.
The Western emphasis on yoga’s physical benefits belies its fundamental intention: to slow down our hyper-stimulated, overwhelmed, forever multi-tasking noggin. As spelled out by Patanjali 2,000 years ago, the purpose of yoga is “to still the fluctuations of the mind.” Consider the flexibility, fitness, and mala beads as perks of the practice.
This obsession with looking the part is the crux of the modern yogi’s dilemma. We know deep inside that yoga is more than the poses, yet we rarely see evidence of this. What we see, instead, are Cirque du Soleil selfies. Which is a rather intimidating ideal for the average schmo.
My triumphant return to yoga has been every bit the humbling experience it should be for a middle-aged woman who fell off the mat twenty years ago. More days than not, my body feels like a deck chair left out over a long, hard winter. You can forget about rising kundalini and aligned chakras. I’m grateful to make it through a class without collapsing halfway through plank.
This and a hundred other mortifying experiences are normal and to be expected when returning or first arriving to the mat. As the old plumber’s adage goes, the first water out of the pipe ain’t the prettiest. Stay with it.
Practice, Practice, Practice
I’m annoyingly fond of saying, “how we do one thing, is how we do everything.” And therein lies the magic of yoga. Patanjali made that clear when he placed the ethical guidelines before the physical practice. Be kind, honest, and generous. Exercise moderation and let go of what no longer serves you. Prioritize cleanliness and practice gratitude. Be disciplined in your actions and take time for self-reflection. In the end, remember that we all come from the earth and that we can never comprehend the mystery of it.
Then, roll out your mat.
During my twenty years in exile, I never stopped studying yoga. I would go as far as to say my practice deepened. If you were to ask that girl in the photo what yoga means I would have parroted “union.” I now know it’s much more than that. Yes, yoga is a state of connection with the purpose of calming the mind. But how we get there is through the cultivation of an inner life that feels whole. In other words, we live our yoga in every aspect of our lives.
The Long Game
Yoga is not a quick-fix. It’s a philosophy for living. What it will promise through sincere and consistent practice is that anyone can become more peaceful, happy, and free. It doesn’t matter what happened to you in the past or where you find yourself in the present. Anyone who has the intention to break through self-limiting thoughts and behaviors will find freedom through this practice.
If you have been in exile from your body, take heart in knowing the entire foundation of yoga is built on the precept of kindness. Ahimsa is the first limb of the first branch of yoga. It’s often translated as non-harming, or non-violence. Be kind and give yourself credit for believing in your worth and initiating a practice. And take it from this old yogi, Epsom salt is your new best friend.
This article was first published in The Medium.