In 2000, I discovered yoga at my local gym. I’d heard of yoga before, but never thought anything of it. I dismissed it because I wasn’t flexible, and after all, you need to be flexible to practice yoga, right? Wrong. I also dismissed it because I ignorantly believed that it wasn’t a workout. During that time, I was all about the gym life. I didn’t believe I’d worked if I didn’t wake up sore and close to pain the next morning. I’m laughing as I write this because I almost can’t believe how far I’ve come. I went to the gym one day for my wonderful strength training class, only to find that there had been a change in the schedule. Instead of the hard-core, weight-filled strength training class, there was a power yoga class. Not really wanting to do the treadmill, as it wasn’t cardio day, I didn’t want to go home. I mean, I’d made the trip to the gym, after all. So I decided to stay for this yoga class. All I can say is Ooh Wee! I worked my tail off! I had never sweated that much before! I walked out of the exercise room, spent and intrigued. I realized I was wrong about yoga. I wanted to practice it more because it kicked my butt and I was not about to have that. So I kept at it. I even bought some VHS tapes (Yep, I still had a VCR in those days and bought VHS tapes) to practice at home so that I could look better in class. I also did what I had a habit of doing back then. I stopped. I’m not really sure why I stopped, but I did. It would be 6 years before I picked it up again–during my pregnancy. Once I had my daughter, I stopped again. And then I picked it up again after my dad passed away. I think that’s when I was truly ready to have a yoga practice because it’s then that I fell in love with everything that it stood for and the transformation it initiated in my life–physically, mentally and spiritually. I began to understand that yoga is not some exercise fad. No, it is a spiritual practice.
Once I became really serious about yoga, it brought up a lot for me. There were many things I had to work through, and flexibility was the least of those things. But I stuck with it and I am still a practicing yogi today. Here are just a few reasons why I love yoga.
Yoga taught me to stop comparing myself to others. I remember being in class with an elderly woman who was near 80 years old. This woman was so limber! She gracefully transitioned from downward dog to standing split, to peacock with such ease. I felt ashamed that my barely 30 year-old self was getting my tail handed to me by this woman. I began to practice more intensely and I was able to do the poses better. But then, there was the issue of how others looked. I don’t have a yoga body. At least that’s what I told myself then. Many times, I would be the only Black girl in the class and I would feel so inferior to the other women in the class. It took me a while, but I learned to stay on my mat and concern myself only with what I was doing on my mat. Now, I don’t care what anyone else is doing. If I happen to glance at someone else, I simply admire the beauty of their pose and that’s it, because I know today that all that matters is what I’m doing on my own mat.
Yoga helped me to become flexible. This seems obvious. After all, stretching our muscles leads to increased flexibility. However, I’m not talking about simple physical flexibility. Now don’t get me wrong. I have become much more flexible than I ever was in my previous years. However, I’m saying that yoga helped me to apply the same concept of stretching myself on the mat to stretching myself off the mat. Something new has come my way? Instead of resisting it, I learned to try it and allow it to stretch me. If it didn’t work the first time, I’d walk away and come back to it. I learned that there is a difference between being uncomfortable and being in pain. Flexibility develops right in the midst of that uncomfortable spot. Who knew?
Yoga taught me to simply breathe. Je’Niece what do you mean? Breathing is involuntary, so how the heck did you learn to breathe through yoga? Well, I’m glad you asked me this because I’m more than happy to give you the answer. Yes, it’s true that breathing is involuntary. However, most of us breathe shallowly. That means we really only breathe from our chest up. In yoga, pranayama, or control of breath, is taught. Ujjayi breathing, which is diaphragmatic breath, is taught. You breathe completely into your lungs down into your low belly. Doing so brings your body more oxygen, and it also aids to bring awareness to your body, and release of pent-up emotions. Learning ujjayi breathing helped me to release tension when I became tense, afraid, or just down right uncomfortable. It actually proved to be quite beneficial for me when I found myself stuck in traffic. Yoga helped me to understand that as long as I’m breathing, there’s life. And life means that I have an opportunity to find something to enjoy in this moment. And once I get the next moment, I can move into it with grace. That means I have not been conquered by whatever seemingly unsurmountable obstacle I see before me. Breath is everything. The minute I stop breathing, is the minute my game of life is over. Perspective is a mutha, ain’t it?
Yoga taught me to slow down. As I have grown in my yoga practice, I’ve tried many of the different forms of yoga. I’ve found that I am partial to slow flow. I love slow flow. My slow flow practice has helped me to understand that I don’t have to rush, rush, rush all in the glorification of busy-ness. I can actually take things slow and steady. And I actually like taking my time. My slow flow practice has helped me to relinquish my to-do lists and adopt the mindset of knowing that I can only do what I can do, as I can do it. Even more, I’m more apt to do things better the first time if I take my time. Didn’t the tortoise teach us when we were children that slow and steady wins the race? Why did we not take heed?
Yoga taught me to release the need for all the bells and whistles. When I first became serious about yoga, I was serious. (See what I did there?) To prove how serious I was about being serious about yoga, I went out and bought all the expensive yoga gear–clothing, mats, sticky socks and gloves, and yoga bag to hold them all. I spent so much money and the funny thing is that I didn’t like most of the stuff I bought. The bags weren’t big enough to hold my yoga stuff, or I simply wound up repurposing them. The clothes were cool, but I eventually began wearing them more outside of yoga. You know what I wear to yoga now? My clearance bought leggings and tanks from Marshalls and TJ Maxx. I do have a lululemon mat, but that’s about the most expensive thing I have. I found I didn’t need all the bells and whistles. I just needed me and a mat. And the same is true for my life off the mat. I don’t need the most expensive clothes, makeup, or car. I don’t need the biggest house. My needs are quite minimal when I think about all the things I convince myself that I must to have. The reality is that I already have everything that I need. There goes that perspective.
Yoga taught me to become comfortable with seeking support. When I first began my practice, I balked at the idea of using a block or a strap. I would risk severe injury by forcing a pose rather than use the supportive tools available to me. It would take some years before I realized that my body just won’t bend in certain poses the way others can. It would take a little bit more time to become comfortable with that. No matter how much I try, right now, I just can’t do some poses without the aid of the strap or the block, and that’s ok. That’s exactly their purpose–to support me. The same is true for life. I’m not meant to go it alone. There are people who love me who want nothing more than to support me. Working over time to prove how big that S on my chest is has done nothing more than cause more harm to myself, AND deprive those who love me the opportunity to actually display their love for me. And when I think about it, it actually feels much better to be supported.
Sometimes I think if I could just live my life on a yoga mat, I would. I think life would be so wonderful if that’s the way I could live. Then I’m reminded that is one of the reasons I love and practice yoga: so that what arises on the mat will transcend and become what arises off the mat.