I began yoga at age 19 after a car accident caused some damage to the muscles around my scapula. After a year of physical therapy did nothing to resolve the muscle weakness, my mom suggested we try yoga. I reluctantly agreed.
Together, we attended private lessons, where the instructor worked with our unique bodies and structural weaknesses. Within a few weeks, I had built up enough muscle around the traumatized area to support its recovery. Quickly and unexpectedly, I fell in love with yoga.
I began attending classes several times per week, gradually deepening my stretches and building my strength. In 2014, I completed my 200-hour yoga teacher training, where I learned how to breath, modify poses, and assist others in doing the same.
What I love most about yoga is that the lessons learned on the mat can extend out to all areas of our lives. Here are 10 valuable lessons I’ve gained from my practice:
1. Remember to breathe
We are all guilty, at one time or another, of getting lost in our thoughts: anxiety, depression, to-do lists, and replaying long-gone conversations. These periods of overwhelm are marked by short, quick breaths.
Yoga taught me to focus on my breath; to breathe in deeply and with intention, and to exhale with the same mindfulness. On the mat, proper breathing helps us to sink deeper into our stretch and provide a focus for our mind.
2. Patience + Discipline = Progress
Yoga is accessible to people of all shapes, sizes, and experience levels. It’s so tempting to step into your first yoga class and perfectly mimic the teacher’s leads, but it’s unrealistic. Some people are naturally more flexible than others, some will always have tight hamstrings, and some have spinal damage that prevents certain poses.
It may take months before your heel moves from your shin to your thigh in tree pose; it may take years before you can support your body weight in crow pose; and you might not ever master peacock pose. The beauty of yoga is that each pose has modification to make the pose easier or harder. Find what feels good for your body, and allow your progress to evolve organically over time. If you do too much at once, you’ll hurt yourself.
3. You are enough
Yoga has taught me to reframe my perspective, accept where I am, and seek out the positives. As with most people, failure is my biggest fear and it’s easy to get lost in my head and run through all the worst case scenarios. Yet, the reality is that I am good enough exactly as I am.
One of the most beautiful parts of yoga teacher training was giving and receiving feedback as students led class. I quickly realized that each of us had our own unique strengths and weakness that made up our imperfect selves. I will always strive for growth, but that must begin with being comfortable in my own skin.
4. Be kind to yourself
We are each our own biggest critic and yoga has taught me to cut myself some slack. Sometimes, I get frustrated when I can’t seem to reach a pose. Other times, I compare myself to fellow students who are more flexible, graceful, and fit than I am.
I first tried yoga to heal my body; today, I step onto the mat as a form of self-care for both my mind and my body. Most teachers lead with gentleness, encouraging myself to embrace that same level of compassion when guiding my body and my thoughts.
5. Make modifications, where necessary
Yoga has taught me to listen to my body. In yoga, I can retreat to downward facing dog or child’s pose when the struggle to hold a pose or embrace discomfort gets to be too much. Teachers will say, “If you’re feeling pain, don’t do it. If you’re usually able to do the pose, but your body isn’t willing today, it’s okay.”
Life is filled with options and alternatives. In yoga, the modifications are laid out more clearly than in our day-to-day lives, but the same idea holds true: listen to whatever messages your body, mind, and soul are trying to send you.
6. Practice regularly
Yoga has taught me the importance and the value of regular practice. Taking the time to stretch my body several times per week has reinforced the idea that practice and hard work–not some innate talent–will help me master any skill I desire.
During my first several months in yoga, I struggled with several poses. However, over time, I became stronger, more flexible, and more confident. Showing up regularly and developing a consistent habit is the only reason I was able to notice such changes.
7. Resist the urge to compare yourself to others
Each yoga class is going to have that person whose flexibility defies the laws of physics and whose leggings are worthy of envy, but yoga has taught me to release these thoughts and focus solely on my own practice.
Yoga teachers regularly remind their students bring awareness back what’s happening on their own mat–a harder variation isn’t better or worse, and that thought is a product of our ego. We’re all on our own journey and we are exactly where we need to be today.
8. Find a balance between comfort and challenge
In yoga, as in life, progress is often gradual and non-linear. If we stick with the easy and familiar for too long, we risk becoming bored and giving up; if we push ourselves too hard, we risk disappointment and failure. Thus it’s vital to pay attention to bodily sensations and the mind, and push yourself just a centimeter past what you thought to be your limit.
Over time, small baby steps beyond your comfort zone will gradually add up to significant advancements.
9. Define your own belief system
There are dozens of yoga classes variations and countless themes, from high-intensity fitness workouts to calming spiritual practices. In yoga, we have the freedom to choose from a collection of classes and teachers, finding what makes sense individually.
In life, we have similar options. We can choose where to spend our time and how to fulfill any desire for spiritual connection. If none of the mainstream religions or belief systems align with our personal values, we have the opportunity to select our favorite elements of each and create our own unique conglomerate.
10. Take your practice off the mat
My first yoga teacher told me something that I did not understand at the time, but that I will never forget. She told me that I can practice yoga anywhere: in my car, at work, and while waiting in line at the DMV. Years later, I realized that yoga is more than just physical exercises, but also a mindset.
In yoga class, we hold our head high and breath deeply. We practice flexibility and venture out of our comfort zones in a supportive environment. We practice mindfulness, presence, and letting go of intrusive thoughts. Each of these skills has transferred into my day-to-day life, whether intentionally or inadvertently.
All of these lessons have intertwined over the years and built a foundation to support my journey of self-awareness, personal growth, and wellness. I am eternally grateful to my mother for proposing we trying yoga together, and to all my teachers along the way who have taught me how to properly nurture my mind, body, and soul.
Do you practice yoga? If so what have been some of you most potent and life-changing lessons?