Taking Yoga Off the Mat

When I say the word “yoga”, I’m sure most people automatically think of exercise. For most of the people in Western society, yoga is a way to get fit. It conjures up images of people twisted into complicated poses. However, the physical practice of yoga is only one of the traditional Eight Limbs. It’s just the tip of the iceberg as it were. A regular yoga practice can bring about more than just physical changes. Yoga often brings about mental and emotional changes as well. As time goes on, I’m learning to carry these changes with me throughout my day, not just the time I spend on the mat.

Yoga as Rehab

The physical changes yoga has brought to my life are probably the most obvious. When I decided to make yoga my primary form of exercise, I wasn’t really looking for anything more than a way to keep fit. As I previously mentioned, I had been a cheerleader and a dancer for years during my teens. I wanted a form of exercise that I found enjoyable that kept me strong and gave me back some of my previous flexibility.

I was also rehabbing my body from some forms of exercise that didn’t really work for me, and that had left me feeling injured and in pain. On top of that, I suffered from chronic pain in my right hip since childhood. I’d sought different treatments on and off with varying degrees of success, but it always came back. Often, the pain would leave me unable to sleep.

The first thing I noticed, probably within the first week of regular practice, was that my hip pain eased. Within a few weeks, it had gone away completely. The only time it ever hurts me now is if I slack off on my regular practice, and as soon as I pick it back up, the pain goes away again. The other nagging injuries I had are now distant memories. I feel physically better than I have in a long time. But the physical effects are far from the only changes I’ve noticed.

Shoulders by yoga
I do have some sweet shoulder muscles now, though.

Learning to Let Go

I am, by nature, a very high-strung person. I push myself hard, I worry a lot, and I feel things very deeply. My father once said that he knew I’d get a specific thing done because once I decide to do something, I commit to it 110%. I am also stubborn, prone to hyperbole, and I have a temper. Thank goodness I have a sense of humor about it all to go along with all of that!

Practicing yoga, and committing to it 110% as I am wont to do, has brought my self-awareness to a new level. I’m no longer just aware that I have these bad habits, but able to see them for what they are in the moment and take a step back.¬†I am learning that letting go and not trying to control every little thing is actually more enjoyable. It helps me to worry less when I realize I can’t actually be responsible for saving the world. If there’s something concrete I can do to take action and improve the situation, I certainly do it. But I’ve learned I can’t be responsible for how everyone else acts, and that some circumstances are just out of my control. It’s scary sometimes for a control freak at heart like me, but it’s also pretty freeing.

What Do You Do When You’re Squeezed.

An old pastor of mine once said that what you say and do when you’re squeezed, those moments when your world is caving in around you, is who you really are deep inside. That can be an uncomfortable truth at first. Realizing how unappealing my worst self can be is a bucket of cold water in the face.

Yoga philosophy
Me thinking about that last tempter tantrum I threw.

In yogic philosophy, these patterns of behavior we have learned over our lifetimes are called “samskaras”. At some point, we have encountered a similar situation before and our experience then informs our future behavior. Sometimes these patterns are helpful. Burning a hand on a hot pan can teach us to use a potholder next time.¬†Samskaras aren’t always helpful, though. Unfounded or misplaced fears, or a quick and uninformed reaction, can keep us from living to our full potential.

On my yoga mat, I practice being flexible, mindful, and aware. I practice controlling my breath, my thoughts, my emotions. I learn to sit with and breath into discomfort. In practicing all of these things in the relative comfort and safety of the yoga studio or my mat at home, I’m giving myself a fighting to chance to put it into action when I get squeezed. I’m not perfect and sometimes some primordial ooze still comes out when life decides to throw me a curve ball. However, I do see improvements.

Progress, Not Perfection

Clearly, not everything is rainbows and unicorns now that I practice yoga. Life happens, and I’m not perfect. I still get frustrated with myself, some days I’m a little thin on patience, and it remains easy for me to fall into the trap of trying too hard to control every aspect of my life. My samskaras are still with me. But I’m learning, and I continue to take the lessons yoga is giving me and work to apply them off the mat.

Yoga off the mat