What is yoga to you?

This morning I read the quote below.  It resonated with me and as a result, I wanted to share it:

“Yoga is not about being bendy. Its about showing up to your mat consistently not knowing what is going to happen and being okay with that.  Its about rehabilitating yourself and not believing the “experts” who say you are too injured or too old.  Its about believing you can do anything even if its the scariest most impossible thing you could ever dream of.  Its about uncovering who you really are.  Its about being kind to yourself so you can then be kind to others.  Yoga is about discovering that most of the crazy thoughts in your head are not true.  Its about being healthy without pushing yourself to your limit.  Its about slowing down to get strong.  Its about breathing and moving and smiling on the inside.  Its the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the best.”

I’ve never been bendy even after more than a decade of yoga classes.  However, a lot of people – including yoga teachers – are not bendy in the way some people visualize yoga.  There is a big difference between stretching and being hyper-flexible.  Many non-yogis think that they have to be able to touch their toes or wrap their feet around their head while balancing on one finger to take class.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Yoga is truly about showing up on the your mat consistently and accepting what is going to happen both in class and to your body without judgment.  Does this mean that as a first time student you show up to an advanced class and expect to not be frustrated?  No, of course not.  No matter where you are in life (or in your day for that matter) you choose a class that suits you – whether it is stretching, strengthening, flowing, breathing, meditative – or all of these things.  The biggest thing to know about yoga is that like anything else, yoga is what you make of it.  You can go to class, half-ass your way through it and at the end be dissatisfied both physically and mentally.  Or you can take the time that you’ve carved out of your life to come to your mat, be present and be focused.  Again, it doesn’t mean that you’ll do every asana, do it prettily or perfectly, but you do it to the best of your ability that day.

Small caution here – not every yoga pose (asana) is suitable for every person.  If you have high blood pressure or glaucoma headstand is not for you.  If you have diagnosed herniated or bulging disks in your back, some forward bends will need to be modified for you or may be inappropriate.  This is why its important to find a studio with mindful, well-informed teachers, and if you need them, find health care providers and doctors who understand yoga, its benefits, what to take from it and what to avoid.

I have been blessed (or lucky) and have found myself a circle of healthcare providers who believe in the benefits of yoga.  While my back surgery did relieve much of my pain, there is pain I will always have.  With the help of my “team”, including my yoga teacher mentor, I don’t have a single person in my life, with medical degrees or not, telling me I’m too old or damaged for yoga.  In fact my surgeon encouraged me to start stretching as soon as I could and my mentor encourages me to slow it down and not try to do everything in one day.

As to the mental aspect of yoga, oh, there is so much fear.  For some people, there is fear just to step on the mat or enter their first class, as discussed above – unsure of what’s going to happen, will I look foolish, will I hurt myself, can I do this, what if I fart or burp during class? – and the only way to get past it is to open your mind.

Before I became a vinyasa teacher, I took both Sivananda and Bikram classes.  Both are set classes with little to no variation from class to class.  So when I started taking vinyasa classes, I was terrified.  First off – where were the mini-savasanas (rests) between sets of asanas?  Then as I got used to the flows, I would get worried, especially in more advanced classes – what comes next?  What if I can’t do it?  What if it doesn’t feel good?

I’ve gotten past alot of those fears but I understand.  When I see a student not in the moment, I do my best to bring the student back to  and move from moment to moment without worrying about what comes next or what we just did.

Then there are  regular students who think they know what will come next, their thought process jumps ahead and again, as teachers we have a responsibility to cue students back into the moment.

Many fears can be worked through.  Many are irrational (such as those dang voices in my head) but alot of our fears have root in some kind of reality or experience.  Yoga helps us soften the hard edges, both  mind & body and as a result helps us work through some of our fears.  I find that much of this is through breath work.  It is easier to calm yourself and assuage your fears when you are breathing fully, deeply and with focus.  The more you learn more about yoga and the different types of breath – to calm, to cool off, to heat up – its amazing how you can apply to your daily life.

You do not have to lift weights or run as fast as you can to get strong.  Nor do you have to balance on one finger.  In fact, you can mix and match your exercise and you may find that a yoga class may be complementary to running or tennis.  Yoga is about stretching and strengthening.  Stretching our minds, allowing in new thoughts, letting things become more gray and less black and white.  Perhaps even softening some of the hard layers we develop through life and letting in people and experiences that you may not normally.  That’s where learning to smile inwardly works.  When you carry a smile in your heart you really do radiate it.  It makes you more open to be civil, friendly as well as open to new people, experiences and friendships.

If  you are old enough to remember The Flintstones cartoon (or the Frente! remake), you may remember this little song:

“So let the sun shine in, face it with a grin.
Smilers never lose and frowners never win.
So let the sun shine in, face it with a grin
Open up your heart and let the sun shine in.”
(written by Stuart Hamblen)

If you can let yoga into your heart, you will smile more often.  Your body will feel better, your heart will sing and your life will feel different.  So don’t hesitate.  Find your inspiration, open up your heart and let the sun shine in.