5 Lessons I Learned from Yoga

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When I first came to yoga, it was all about the physical benefits to my body. I loved pushing myself to work up a sweat. I set goals to become more flexible, to master a certain pose, to finally hold a handstand. Each marker I met fueled me to keep going, to practice more and set the bar higher. 

It’s within human nature to want to progress in this way. To know that whatever we do today matters to our lives tomorrow, and the next day, and the next…. Yoga as a physical practice affords us the ability to track our progress in a tangible way.

And yet yoga asana is just one aspect of yoga. One of eight branches, in fact. What most people don’t realize is that all the branches are interconnected. So practicing even one branch will help you evolve along all the branches.

Whether you are a long practicing yogi or have taken one yoga asana class, yoga is a privilege passed on for thousands of years. Expanded and evolved, for better or worse (depending who you ask). Many of us in the West come to yoga through fitness. But we stay for another reason.

We stay because it changes us. Because we become better humans. Because yoga is more than just a work out or a lifestyle. It’s a means of understanding ourselves and each other.

Here are 5 lessons I’ve carried into my life from practicing yoga:

1. Balance is not about standing still, it’s about compensating for changes so you can stay standing. I used to think that mastering a handstand or balancing on one leg was about becoming still. But in reality, if you lift one foot, the other foot instinctually begins to make micro movements—left, right, forward, and back—adjusting to the new center of gravity. Today you may not feel like you have it all. Maybe you hate your job. A relationship ended. You feel an itch to travel. A loved one passed away. There will always be an area of life that has tipped too far one way. But it wasn’t always there and it won’t always stay there. Just like one foot holding up the rest of the body, life has a way of making micro movements. Some we are aware of, some we are not. But if we zoom out far enough and long enough, we’ll see that life is one big balancing act.

2. Ego is a tool like any other, it’s your choice if you want to use it for positive or negative. In yoga philosophy, consciousness is not separate for each of us. We are all part of the same consciousness. It’s the mind—just one aspect of our being and yoga—that has created this identity, “I.” We need a sense of “I” to survive as physical beings and, yet, so often this same sense of “I” creates unnecessary separation. The ego can be used to compare, to notice what you have that I don’t, what you have done that I haven’t done. Or it can be used for the opposite—to embrace all the wonderful qualities and possessions you do have, regardless of others. Or better yet, to also rejoice in what others have, regardless of what you have. Ego is an amazing tool of self worth. The next time you feel someone has it better than you, try reciting a mantra of self worth: “I am a perfect being.” or “I am an amazing parent/sibling/person.” or “I love my body.” We are all here walking the same earth and experiencing the same aspects of humanity. Don’t let your ego isolate you as too different or unworthy. 

3. Play to your edge, but don’t go past it. Early in my yoga training, I read an article by a man named Joel Kramer, who introduced the idea of playing the edge of your limit in a yoga asana posture. “In Hatha yoga,” he states, “as you awarely play the edge of what is physically possible, your edge moves. What is possible has changed. You have changed.” Yoga is all about tuning into the feedback loop between your body and mind. So often we are told, “mind over matter,” but our bodies are a part of that intelligence. Remove the body from the equation while attempting the splits or a headstand and, suddenly, you could be facing a life-altering injury. And yet, mental burn out stems from this same separation of mind and body. How often do you push your mind past its edge and then spend months picking up the pieces of the meltdown that occurs? When we ignore one part of the system, we suffer. Conversely, when we test out our edge, go to it, but not past it, then we can incrementally build up to a new edge. This means progress without burnout! Just because you set a goal doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. Your body and mind will tell you what pace is right. Even though it can be frustrating to not get there as fast as you want to or thought you could, you will get there eventually. And best of all, you will further your edge just by meeting it every single day where you are. 

4. Let go of what isn’t serving you. It sounds easier than it is, right? Pranayama, or breathwork, is one of the eight branches of yoga. The Sanskrit word “prana” can be translated as “life force.”  The idea of pranayama is to purify the life force within us using the breath. Breathwork is what sets yoga as a physical practice apart from other forms of movement and exercise. The breath becomes a tool to master a yoga posture, to go deeper into meditation, to warm the body, to cool the body … there are endless possibilities. No matter what, each inhalation we take must be followed by an exhalation. On a biological level, our inhale carries oxygen into our lungs and capillaries, and our exhale carries carbon dioxide from the capillaries into the lungs and out into the world. If we do not exhale, we’ll die. Just like that carbon dioxide, we hold onto people, places, and ideas that no longer serve us. Recognize when something or someone is asking you to let go, or if you need to do the asking. Letting go makes room for new air, new experiences. 

 5. Enjoy the journey. Depending on who you ask, the journey of yoga and the journey of life are one in the same. Many people come to a yoga asana class and never come back because it was too uncomfortable. It brought up an emotion or a feeling they weren’t ready to face. Other people keep coming back, expand to meditation, breathwork, even energy work, because they feel themselves changing. Discomfort is a part of life just as joy is a part of life. We take the bad with the good because without one, the other doesn’t exist. Without bad, we’d never recognize the good. The journey will not be linear, it will not always feel good, but the more we can accept the discomfort, the more joy we will find on the horizon.

What you will find as you continue your yoga practice is that it doesn’t take a studio or a donation class or even a pilgrimage to India to truly access the power of the practice. Yoga is all around us, always, in our every action, thought, and interaction. All we have to do is remain aware and open.

What lessons have you learned from yoga?