Life Strife, Or How Yoga Doesn’t Fix Anything

One of my favorite jobs is being on the faculty of the yoga teacher training program (YTT) at blue lotus, where I teach anatomy, teaching methodology, and other fun stuff.

In our most recent YTT module, one of the trainees posited that yoga teachers always present as being all full of love and light, and she didn’t see how that was possible. I so appreciated her attitude, which seemed to be a mixture of “you’ve gotta be kidding me” and “well, I guess I’m screwed then.”

I have to confess that I always feel a little creeped out by the “love and light” phraseology that floats around the yogasphere. Because, really, someone who will never cop to having a bad attitude, questionable intentions, a judgy/mean/selfish side, or a totally shitty day of his or her own making—that’s someone I don’t trust. Like, not at all.

This woman’s comment made me ponder some on the image that we yoga teachers can be at risk of projecting: an untenable tranquility, based on the myth that if you practice yoga well enough or diligently enough, you’ll somehow be rid of the relationship woes, body woes, job woes, or any other woes that may have driven you to try yoga in the first place.

Let me say this for the record: If I have ever suggested or seemed to suggest that yoga can cure you of your life strife, I so apologize! Not only is that simply untrue, but it hurt my heart a bit to consider that this lovely, smart, skilled, vibrant, and strong woman in our YTT felt she didn’t measure up just because she didn’t feel all happy-go-skippy all the time.

I’m never the oldest or the wisest person in any room, but I will put some money down on this idea as a truth: Struggle never decreases. And we shouldn’t expect it to. There will be ebbs and flows in terms of tough times and easy times, but life is not designed to have some gradient of increasing ease and tranquility for folks who “do right.”

Life will always, always include struggle. But as the adage goes, pain is not optional; suffering is. And that’s where yoga comes in. Doing yoga will never, ever, ever make your life easier. But it can absolutely, positively, fundamentally improve your capacity to enjoy your life, however much struggle you’re moving through on any given day.

And isn’t that what we’re all after, in our own ways? To make the most of the time we’ve got? To feel better, no matter what’s going on around us or inside us? I think yes. So I do my practice. And the struggle stays real—but it also gets a bit sweeter.

The Evolution Revolution

Change one part of the system, and you change the whole system.

That nugget of yoga goodness, which I learned from the inimitable Leslie Kaminoff, is definitely on my short list for the most-important teachings of yoga. Wanna see it in action?

OK, then. First you must pause in some way, so that you can step in to observation mode. Ready? OK. In this moment of pausing, how do you feel? Where is your attention? What is your mood? What sensations do you notice in your body?

Don’t critique what you observe. If you feel great, fine. If you feel lousy, fine. If you feel nothing, fine. Just notice how you feel, just right now.

Now. Purposely slow your breathing down. Don’t worry about the details—just make the breath slower in some way that isn’t straining or stressful.

Now—only if you want—add a little pause between inhale and exhale, and between exhale and inhale. You are in charge of how long you pause, just like you are in charge of how slow you want your breathing to be.

Do this for as long as you like.

When you’re ready to stop, stop. And go back to observing: how do you feel now? Where is your attention now? What sensations do you notice now?

The effects of this practice can be subtle, but they can also be profound. And I bet that over the course of this experiment something about you shifted—whether it was attention, mood, sensation, or something else.

However subtle the shift was, imagine that its ripples are now traveling through your body, your mind, your life. To me, this is the magic of yoga: it emboldens us to transform any given moment, and empowers us to enhance and evolve our perceptions, actions, and attitudes with simple techniques that pretty much all of us can do.

And I suggest to you: Think of how many different ways you can approach this idea, how many ways you can start that evolution—in your body, your thoughts, your relationships, your community, your country. When you change one part of the system, you change the whole system.

And just like that: Revolution!

My two-minute, no-fail meditation

One of my favorite meditation techniques is a listening meditation, which I learned from yoga teacher Heather Tiddens. It’s one of the most effective ways I know to transform my experience of the moment I’m in—it slows me down, softens some ragged edges, and makes me feel more in touch with myself and the world around me. Which is pretty much exactly what I’m shopping for in a meditation technique.

The trick to this one is to disconnect the act of hearing from the mind-machine that assigns meaning, narrative, and importance to the sounds. During the meditation your aim is to, as best you can, turn off your impulse to follow any particular sound, to name a sound, to create a story around the sound, to decided if you like or dislike a sound. Of course, that’s easier said than done, and it takes practice. But even if you only bring the mind-machine down to 80 percent of usual, you’ll still feel the effects. Y’all, finally, a no-fail meditation recipe!

Try it for just two minutes. Set a timer, then close your eyes (or make your gaze a bit fuzzy) and begin to notice what your ears hear. Can you allow the sounds around you to pass through your awareness, or are you drawn to a particular sound? If your mind hijacks your attention toward one sound, that’s OK—take a breath and go back to just noticing all the sounds, subtle and strong, beautiful and discordant and neutral. Allow sound to come and go.

After the timer goes off, take another moment to pause and notice the effects. How do you feel? There are no right answers—you cannot get this wrong. Meditation, like yoga, is a tool for self-inquiry, so wherever those two minutes of listening took you (or didn’t take you) has value.

Enjoy! I dare you not to!

Solid Ground

In the last two months, the focus of my teaching has turned more and more to the theme of finding solid ground. Between the tumult of the election, the looming holiday season, and the cyclical fall frenzies, it feels to me that these days many of us need regular reminders of our own solid foundation.

When my life gets hectic, stressful, or uncertain, my initial impulse is to think my way through it. And don’t get me wrong—my brain is a real champ, and she’s always trying to help me out. But there’s a fine line between thinking and over-thinking, and the latter always turns into a bunch of spinning: swirling around possibilities; trying to anticipate or prepare for various worst- or best-case scenarios. Planning for the unexpected. (Yes, by definition it is impossible to plan for the unexpected. And still, I try. Sheesh.) To me, over-thinking is my go-to way to try to maintain a sense of control—while the reality is that the more time I spend in my head, the more unmoored I become. And if I’m being honest, over-thinking is my best trick for avoiding the clear messages that I get from my body: Slow down. Take a breath. Put down the remote/glass/spoon/sledgehammer. Notice this feeling.

Feelings can be extra-uncomfortable in uncertain times. Emotions don’t follow the rules. They don’t yield to the methods of the mind. They have no sense of time or timing. And really, this is the superpower of our emotions: Feelings remind us of our own truths. No matter how much thinking I do, my emotions are ultimately faster and smarter than my mind. No matter what chaos is afoot, my feelings can instantly tell me what is or is not OK. When I am doing too much—or too little. When there is something I need to address—in a relationship, or in myself.

Their potency can make emotions—even pleasant ones—feel unmanageable, especially when life gets busy. The mind leaps in to help explain, to narrate, to rationalize, to compartmentalize. If the feelings are too big or too much, the urge to escape them—numbing them through substance, action, or inaction—can be overwhelming. Things outside my comfort zone = things I can’t control, and that puts me on red alert. Whatever I need to do to stop that feeling takes precedence.

It was this impasse between my busy mind and my busy feelings that led me to yoga in the first place. The practices of yoga invite us to remember and inhabit our bodies; to feel our own solidness, realness, aliveness. Our physical body is where mind and mood can integrate, and yoga offers a safe space to explore sensation, emotion, even the business of the mind—while still experiencing the solid ground underneath our feet, and the constancy of our inhale and exhale. Yoga offers calm in the tumult—a calm that we can find within ourselves, and that we can take with us wherever we go, and whatever we’re going through.

Try it. Just for a moment. If you can, take off your shoes (though it’s totally OK to leave them on). Stand on your own two feet. Feel the solidness of the ground underneath you. Feel the next inhale come in, and the exhale go out. Notice also what else is here: the currents of thought, the color and shape of mood. What is it like to allow them all to be here, without labeling any of it good or bad. And what is it like to remind yourself that however you feel in this moment—whatever is going on around you or inside you, you are here. You are real. There is solid ground underneath you (and inside you). You are living your life on this good earth. How amazing is that—how good it is, that you are here.

So much for the summer doldrums, y’all.

I'm sure you know this feeling: A student asked me for today's date as she was checking in for class, and I couldn’t respond without flabbergast—almost every time I give the date, I’m struck by a sense of unreality, and maybe a little shadow of panic. At this moment we’re already almost halfway through the eighth month of 2015. How is that possible? Where has the time gone? (Which is often code for—how did I get here? What am I doing with my life??)

In the last two weeks I’ve heard two wise people talk about time. One was the late poet and philosopher John O’Donoghue, whose 2008 interview with Krista Tippett was aired this week on the podcast of On Being. You should go listen to it right now. For me, listening to that conversation was a spiritual homecoming; I’ve been using his decadent, resonant language in my classes all week, and it feels I’ve discovered a long lost counselor. It’s a disorienting kind of joy to hear someone else speaking aloud your inner, secret language (and doing a much better job than you ever could).

The other wise words came from Pema Chödron. Of course. An article she wrote on the practice of pausing came across my newsfeed—as always, she was right on time.

I’ll be paraphrasing grossly here, but in talking about time O’Donoghue said he thought of stress as resulting from a perverted relationship to time, and how when we reframe that relationship, we can have more of a sense of there being time for things. Instead of thrashing around in the currents of surface time—that always over-structured, always-stolen time—we can and should occasionally settle into the slower currents of time, and enjoy a more expansive sense of our lives. I’ve been making that a theme in my classes: settling into a softer sense of the moments we inhabit; spreading our awareness wide, in order to savor the richness of the time we’re moving through. There is a sweetness to that, even when the moments are difficult.

Of course, we can’t spend all day in these slow currents—we still need to get things done. But this slowing-down sensibility is a way of delving into the sanctuary of the interior world, where we can recover ourselves, replenish ourselves, and find ourselves to be less victimized by time’s relentless marchings-on, and more engaged in the emerging fullness of our unfolding life. (And in case you’re wondering, yes—those words definitely sound best when spoken in O’Donoghue’s Irish brogue.)

In yoga practice we are invited to (re)discover and step into this inner sanctuary again and again—that’s what makes a yoga practice so healing. I’d love to know—what do you think it is that makes a moment feel rich, full, and expansive? What techniques do you use to get to that state of inner sanctuary?

‘Taint what you do….

I mean, sometimes the old sayings are true.

When I describe what yoga is and how yoga works, I usually say something like this: Yoga is a tool for living a happier, fuller life, by improving our natural skills of:
    ⁃    self regulating
    ⁃    self soothing, and
    ⁃    self awareness.

When most of us think of these yoga tools, what we go to are the physical postures. What posture is good for which ailment? What posture is best cross-training for which type of sport? What posture is most advanced, enlightening, empowering, inspiring? And when you consult the Great Lord Google-ji, you will find about 87 answers to each of those questions.

But here’s what I preach whenever I get the chance: The postures themselves have a whole, whole, whole lot less to do with the effects of a yoga practice than does the way in which those postures are done.

It's not what you do; it's how you do it—that's how yoga works.

And I don’t even really have to tell you that, because you already know—it’s the difference between savoring that beautiful blueberry pie and shoveling it in your mouth while watching TV. The difference between taking 87 photographs of the rainbow and just enjoying the rainbow. The difference between truly listening to your partner and preparing your retort while he/she is talking. In everything we do, we have a choice about how we’re going to participate in that action. Yoga asks us to spend some time with that choosing process.

Here’s how I think of my own yoga practice: it’s how I (re)connect to the fundamental aspects of who I am, which I can access anytime, anywhere: my body, my breath, and my awareness. This process of (re)turning my awareness to my physical body and the rhythm of my body breathing can have immediate and significant effects—soothing my nervous system, regulating my mood, and increasing my ability to find both strength and ease in any given moment.

Some folks find this connection through a challenging, complex yoga pose, and some folks can find it in the simplest of movements. Some folks find it playing basketball. The effect is the same.

My practice, on most days, is one I created over years of trial and error. There’s some writing, some gentle movement, some breathing, and some stillness. My practice has changed over the years, and it will surely change in the years to come. Asana is always a part of it—but when I let go of the idea that my practice had to look a certain way or include certain postures to be complete, that’s when I believe I finally had a true yoga practice.

Yoga asana has a multitude of benefits and is a key part of the practice—but it's just one key. There are many ways to unlock the practice of yoga and to discover how it can be of most benefit to you. I encourage exploration of any and every process that might help the individual person plug in, because not nary a one of us is the same. There is no one size fits all, and there is no magic formula.

If that seems like a bummer, try this other truism I use a lot when I’m teaching yoga: when you change one thing in the system, you change the whole system. We are multidimensional creatures: We are a body, but we are also mind, emotion, energy, awareness, intention, action. By finding your own effective yoga practice and using it on a regular basis, you can shift, change, or enhance every aspect of your life: your body, mind, mood; your experience of this one precious current moment.

The most valuable skills you’ll learn in a yoga practice are about process, more than they are about postures. Which is so great, because that means they can be applied anywhere, anytime, no matter what clothes you’re wearing or how (in)flexible you’re feeling. The techniques are simple, and the results are profound.

Why I Practice Yoga (and the Roots of Road Rage)

I found yoga the same day I found road rage.

I was 15, on a weekend road trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway with part of my family. Extended car trips—which were a big part of my childhood—can be little microcosms of a family dynamic. In this particular car, the dynamic was fairly bland on the surface, but underneath it was by turns stifling and a little scary. The adults in charge were navigating the undercurrents of mental illness, substance abuse, manipulation, and deceit, and I never knew when a mood swing would wash us out, or when some betrayal would suck us under. There we sat, my sister and I strapped into the backseat year after year; by age 15 I was old enough to feel the conflict of always treading on eggshells and the guilt of not speaking up for myself or my younger sister, but I was still too young and unskilled to do anything about it.

 The Blue RIdge Parkway is where I learned to unfreeze, to feel my own aliveness.

The Blue RIdge Parkway is where I learned to unfreeze, to feel my own aliveness.

So many people know this sense of being stuck, feeling at a loss on how to address the circumstances around us. My own visceral sense of being trapped, without the power or opportunity to express myself or defend myself, is one of the main reasons I developed such potent road rage as an adult—and also why I am now vegan. But we’ll cover those things some other time. Today I want to tell you about the moment on the Blue Ridge Parkway that would ultimately lead me to practice and then teach yoga.

One of our stops on this weekend trek was a familiar trail. Not the most majestic in that area, but from my earliest memories it had always been a tradition for my family to walk this trail when we were driving the Parkway. On this day, the trail was closed due to bad weather.

From my back seat in the car I didn't think the weather looked too bad, just low-hung clouds covering the little summit. And in the backseat, I was tired of feeling trapped, my body, mind, and heart frozen. I was, at last, starting to feel angry—the emotion that ultimately saved me from repeating my family’s codependent cycles later in life. On this day, in a move that was quite out of character for me, I asked for permission to check out the trail on my own. Equally unlikely, I was granted it.

I made my way up the path and as I approached the usually mild summit, I realized I had been wrong—what appeared to be just a cloudy day at the parking lot below me was actually a serious windstorm once you got higher into the cloud cover. I walked to the little overlook at the summit, and I looked down—instead of the gentle valley spreading out below me, all I could see and hear were shrieking, billowing clouds. The wind at the cliff’s edge was blowing upward, so hard that I could lean into it without falling. It was like the wind was a person—or it was part of me. The usual paralysis and vertigo I feel when confronting heights of any degree wasn’t there; on this day, standing at this edge, leaning into the howling wind, I felt the power of this mountain storm as my own power; I spread my arms wide and screamed as loud as I possibly could.

My scream was taken upward by the wind—I knew my family in the parking lot below me wouldn't hear it. I felt free; I could really feel my own aliveness. It was an unfettered joy, a feeling that I had not known before—perhaps not ever in my life. This joy was so powerful that even after I was strapped back into the confinement of the family car, everyone angry and eggshelling after my overlong solo hike, the echo of this joy persisted. I rode along the Parkway in real peace for awhile.

That feeling was what I would rediscover through yoga. It connected me to the power and joy and peace that was alive inside me, no matter what was going on around me. It took me another 10 years to feel it again, during one of my very first times practicing yoga—and it took me almost another 10 years to commit to making this connection a real part of my everyday life.

Do you know the feeling of being stuck, unsupported, lost, or disconnected from your own spirit and sense of power? What would it be like to find or reconnect to the joy of being alive?

Yoga: The Serenity Prayer in action?

What does it really mean to “do yoga”?

I’ve been considering this question, posed by yoga teacher Francesca Cervero: If I could boil down the teachings of yoga to one single tenet, what would that teaching be?

I’m not sure if I’m ready to submit my final answer. But what I keep coming back to, what seems most relevant and practical for myself and pretty much everyone I know, is what practicing yoga means to me:

 Strength, courage, wisdom, grace. The practice.

Strength, courage, wisdom, grace. The practice.

  • Cultivating the grace to accept the things that cannot be changed
  • Sustaining the courage, determination, and strength to change the things that can and should be changed
  • Developing the wisdom to know the difference between the two.

Yeah. That sounds familiar, right?

But I’m not drawing these ideas from that wonderful Serenity Prayer, embraced by myriad recovery programs. I get them from the Yoga Sutras, a source text of today’s yoga philosophy.

The Sutra itself—2.1—is the first teaching on the practice of yoga by the sage Patanjali, where he defines what makes up yoga practice:

tapaḥ svādhyāy-eśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyā-yogaḥ

My interpretation of this sutra—as well as a whole lot of my learning on yoga for my everyday life—comes from Leslie Kaminoff, whose Yoga Anatomy trainings go way beyond just ruminations on joint actions and muscle movements (though they are way great for that, too). Every year I teach anatomy to the teachers in training at blue lotus, and I always include a lecture taken from Kaminoff’s interpretation of this sutra, which he got from his teacher, TKV Desikachar.

Yoga practice, according to this sutra, must include these three things:

  • Tapas, which I often think of as wherewithal. It is the mustering of your internal power to overcome inertia or resistance and take right action.
  • Svadhyaya, which is self-study. Real, honest, non-judgmental self-reflection on your actions, habits, and unique nature.
  • Ishvara pranidhana, which is surrender to the divine (however you define divine), with faith in the higher, unknowable order of the universe (again, however you define that).

In my anatomy teaching I talk about it with reference to yoga postures—how we approach them, how we embody them. But it’s so applicable to any aspect of life, and to any and everyone, no matter who or where we are. I got a sweet reminder earlier this year upon the death of my great-aunt Cleo Wise, who died at the age of 105—in her sleep, in her own bed, during a nap just following a nice slice of apple pie and some ice cream. When my mother relayed tales from the funeral to me, she told me that someone had recently asked Cleo for her secret to long life, and her response was, “Well, I just learned to be content with whatever was going on.” My inner child bubbled up and shouted, “That’s yoga!”

Now mind you: Aunt Cleo was not a passive, life-goes-on kind of gal. She worked in a textile plant all her adult life and also raised five children, two of which she ultimately buried, as she did three husbands, two grandsons, and five siblings. A true matriarch, my memories of this woman are mostly the messages she left my mother on our answering machine over the years, calling to make sure all was right with her brother’s far-flung children, her voice a caterwaul so loud that it strained the tinny speakers: THIS IS AUNT CLEO. She was loud, bold, and hilarious, and her official position on the key to long life was “hard work and her faith and trust in her Lord.”

It makes sense to me that this same teaching pops up in more that one tradition (assuming that neither Cleo nor theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, author of the Serenity Prayer, were undisclosed yogis), because it’s such a powerful practice for living a satisfying life.

 My great-aunt Cleo Wise, whom I hadn't seen in ages, reminded me in her passing of what my yoga practice really means to me. Fly on to glory, Cleo.

My great-aunt Cleo Wise, whom I hadn't seen in ages, reminded me in her passing of what my yoga practice really means to me. Fly on to glory, Cleo.

As we move through our lives, we always have options for how we will respond to what is happening to our bodies, our minds, our moods, our circumstances. With some practice we can learn to respond instead of react; we can develop our own power to align our thoughts, words, and deeds with our values. And almost like magic, that integrity allows us to experience and enjoy the richness of our lives without being trapped inside the highs, lows, and terrifying neutrals.

This principle has given me more comfort, courage, and inspiration than just about any other thing I have learned from yoga. I can catch myself more quickly when I’m beating my head against a wall; instead of feeling overwhelmed by my emotions, I can use any emotion, from anger to love, as a tool that actually guides me to act with integrity in any situation, whether I am facing a loss, a betrayal, my wildest fantasy come true, or the big jerk in front of me on the highway.

OK. I’m not really awesome at that last example yet.

I may never remotely begin to fathom or understand the universe or my place in it. My single-pointed focus may forever yet waver. And I likely won’t even nail a handstand—forget about those other fancy asanas—in this lifetime. But this principle suggests that no matter where I go and what I’m going through, I can align myself with a full, happy life of purpose, pleasure, and the full palate of human experience, without losing myself or my sanity. I’m willing to put my money on that one—with thanks to Leslie Kaminoff and Cleo Wise for the reminder.

For a different take on this Sutra, and some great reading on Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Ishvara pranidhana, check out this article from Yoga International.

Why I focus my yoga practice on stress

The benefits of yoga are legion. But in my experience, yoga's immediate effects of alleviating stress are the most effective, important way to improve the lives of the majority of folks who are walking around today. For many of us, being stuck in the stress response is a fundamental block to our personal, professional, and spiritual growth, and this is why stress and anxiety are a main focus of my work.

 Most of us also think of stress as an outside force that we react to, prisoners of our own circumstance and even our own bodies, when in fact we all have choices in how we respond to the stresses of life. Those choices we learn to make within ourselves, no matter what our circumstances are.

Most of us also think of stress as an outside force that we react to, prisoners of our own circumstance and even our own bodies, when in fact we all have choices in how we respond to the stresses of life. Those choices we learn to make within ourselves, no matter what our circumstances are.

And it's not just my work focus: stress management, anxiety management, and recovery from chronic stress is an ongoing focus of my personal yoga practice. I want the same thing for myself that I want for my clients: to lessen the burden of stress on the physical and mental body, to allow for better health and a life lived more fully. It's totally possible--and/but/also, it's totally an ongoing process.

A bit more on the stress response, in general: The human body is perceptive, sensitive, and curious. Our autonomic nervous system--the part we don't consciously control--is always aware of our environment, and it's always asking the question: Am I safe? If the answer it perceives is No--or even if the answer is I'm not sure--the stress response kicks in. This response is primal, hardwired from our earliest evolutionary roots, and it prepares us to fight, flee, freeze. Evolutionarily speaking, this response is both normal and essential for our survival--when early humans were threatened, say by an attacking animal, the stress response helped them to run faster, leverage more muscle strength, fight more viciously, even play dead--whatever was necessary, ignoring both pain and pleasure in the pursuit of survival and safety.

While today few of us humans face mortal danger on a regular basis, we have the same physiologic stress response that helped ancient man survive the dangers of the world. And it kicks in whenever we perceives a threat--not just the immediate threat of danger, but anything that threatens our physical, social, even financial security: being chastised by a boss or other authority figure; a fight with a partner, friend, or family member; getting stuck in traffic; a financial setback. And as we all know, all to well, these types of triggers can happen every day, even multiple times a day.

Not all stress responses are a full-throttle fight-or-flight adrenaline explosion, but they all include, to some degree, a cascade of changes in the body that would serve a person well if he were running or fighting for his life: blood gets stickier and more likely to clot; digestion dysregulates; inflammation and blood pressure increase, immune response and restful sleep decrease. These responses, though helpful in a short-term battle or escape scenario, become profoundly unhelpful when they are triggered chronically, even if at a low level.

Our physiologic responses to stress upset our physical, mental, and emotional balance. Even if the stress response never becomes acute, chronic low-level stress can become a biological pattern that has long-term implications. Chronic stress has been implicated in maladies ranging from weight gain to plummeting libido; from heart disease to diabetes; from depression and anxiety to accelerated aging.

I believe that chronic stress is one of the greatest and most under-addressed threats to our health and happiness because most of us lack the skills to manage stress effectively, and many of us are stuck in long-term stress patterns. Most of us also think of stress as an outside force that we react to, prisoners of our own circumstance and even our own bodies, when in fact we all have choices in how we respond to the stresses of life. Those choices we learn to make within ourselves, no matter what our circumstances are.

It's true that stress and things that make us afraid or uncomfortable are never not going to be a part of life. But no matter what our stress levels are, it is also possible to repattern our responses--even those hard-wired, autonomic ones--to the daily stresses of life, and to retune our nervous system after extreme, acute, or prolonged stressful periods in life. It's possible to become more resilient to stress and change, so that we move quickly from reactive, self-destructive responses to healthy responses that use the stresses of life to help us grow and thrive. My goal, for myself and for my clients, is to get better and better at transforming stress from a thing that drags me down to a thing that engages me to live my life fully, authentically, and compassionately.

Yeah, that's a tall order. But I'm up for it.

Why standing on one foot leads to health and happiness

Folks who've done yoga regularly for any length of time usually will attest to the idea that yoga makes life better. But it can seem a bit of a stretch: other than the obvious building of neuromuscular strength and flexibility, and maybe lung capacity, how does doing a few sun salutations on the regular make you a happier, healthier person?

 What is it about doing a few sun salutations on the regular that leads to the many touted benefits of yoga practice?

What is it about doing a few sun salutations on the regular that leads to the many touted benefits of yoga practice?

I will talk elsewhere about how I believe yoga's effectiveness in reducing stress could probably save the world. For now, we'll put stress under the general umbrella of disease, and stick to the general question of how yoga improves both health and well-being. First, and back to the obvious, yoga relieves tension and builds strength and suppleness in the body--and living in a body with more ease can, in and of itself, make most people feel happier and healthier.

But wait! There's more.

In terms of recovering and maintaining mental and physical health, there is a growing base of published research to document yoga's beneficial effects as a supportive tool in treating a range of health conditions, from heart disease to osteoporosis to multiple sclerosis to anxiety/depression. While these types of claims and testimonials have been made for decades by yoga practitioners worldwide, the growing presence of yoga-related research in the Western scientific literature is transitioning the conversation from subjective to substantive.

But what about how yoga affects still-subjective stuff, like happiness? In my experience, the most important way that yoga helps with happiness by developing our inherent skills for navigating our lives with integrity, compassion, and courage. We become more resilient to change, struggle, stress. We become more responsive and less reactive. We cultivate our compassion, kindness, and self worth.

Now, how in the hell does standing in Tree Pose do all that?

One of the main source texts for the yogic traditions defines what yoga is in Sanskrit: tapas svadhyaya isvara pranidhana kriya yoga, which in its basest translation equates the practice of yoga to self study, determination, and surrender to the ultimate source (however you define that). One of my favorite interpretations of this teaching comes from yoga educator Leslie Kaminoff, who calls it the Yogic Serenity Prayer: Through practice, we learn to discern more clearly the things about ourselves and our lives that are mutable and the things that are immutable. We develop the courage and tenacity to change the things that need changing, and the grace to accept and make peace with the things we cannot change.

And how, exactly, does that happen?

In most cases, this begins with the physical body. You learn how to have a friendly conversation with your body--to notice and appreciate how your body moves or doesn't move; to apply appropriate effort to change the things that can and should change, and to accept (and relax around) the things that aren't currently changeable. And because the body is inherently intertwined with mind, mood, and energy, developing and improving this relationship on the physical plane quickly translates to other aspects of the self.

Ultimately, yoga is about improving your relationship with yourself. The benefits of that are boundless.