There are many benefits to practicing yoga. The word yoga is often translated as “to yoke” or “to unite”. Through yoga practices we seek union on several different levels. First, we seek to unite the fractured parts of self and psyche. Second, we seek union with others, both sentient and non-sentient beings. Finally, we seek to realize our union with the Divine of our understanding.
I’ve been practicing yoga in some form or another for a pretty long time and I must confess I’ve yet to experience total union with All that Is. Shocking, I know. I would also venture to guess that I am not alone in this. Any enlightened masters out there?
To me this indicates that most of us, despite being devoted to our yoga practice, have not obtained the ultimate aim of yoga, or Yoga with a capital “Y”. Yet we keep practicing! Not only do we continue to practice despite not having encountered the Divine of our understanding over the course of our 60-minute hatha yoga class, but upon leaving said class, rather than feeling cheated or like we didn’t get our money’s worth, we have the gall to feel blissed-out and say it was a great practice!
Yoga is often described as a mind-body-spirit practice. It both penetrates and envelops us on different levels of our being: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. No matter the ultimate outcome of yoga, simply doing the practice brings great benefits.
A different way of being embodied.
Many of us have jobs that require our body to engage in repetitive movement. It doesn’t matter whether we are on our feet all day or have a desk job. When our bodies do the same thing over and over again, eventually it becomes fatigued and sometimes even injured. One of the reasons we feel so good after doing a physical yoga practice such as hatha yoga is we are moving our bodies in ways that we are not accustomed to. When we are just beginning a yoga practice, we may feel awkward and find ourselves unable to do all of the asanas (yoga postures). That is okay! Adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog pose) is a very unnatural position for our bodies to be in, and for a beginner, certainly not restful! However, as we continue to show-up on our mats day after day, week after week, year after year, we find our bodies begin to enjoy and even crave our asana practice.
Mastering our mind.
Interestingly enough, we may find our minds begin to crave the asana practice as well. Practicing yoga requires us to focus. When we move our bodies in challenging ways, we have to carefully pay attention to what we are doing. If our minds are wandering, we may find ourselves practicing the asana incorrectly. Therefore, we train our minds to stay in the practice with our bodies so that the mind and body are both on the same page. We learn to use our minds as tools as we realize that we have a choice in what we think about and where we direct our attention. The best part is, this enhanced focus does not have to end after yoga class. We can use our minds more effectively in our home and work life as well.
Discerning our emotions.
As we develop the ability to be present in our bodies and with our thoughts, we also find that we become less reactive and more observing. This allows us to better regulate our emotions. Emotions actually last only about 90 seconds. Anything beyond that is usually a result of our thinking about the emotion. Rather than being at the mercy of our ruminations, we can begin to question them before the become a “mood”, or an emotion in a persistent state. First, we identify what the emotion is. Second, we determine how that emotion can be best expressed. As we process and appropriately express our emotions, we can release them and live in a greater state of presence.
A path to inner peace.
The physical, mental, and emotional benefits of yoga are certainly enough to encourage us to continue our practice even on days that we feel we are too busy or would rather sleep in. However, yoga’s greatest benefit is spiritual. Yoga is a path to inner peace. All other benefits of yoga serve this one intention. As we care for our physical body, we become healthier. When we are able to direct our minds rather than be directed by our minds, we experience the pause between our thoughts where peace exists. By being the observer and discerner of our emotions, we can more maturely work with them and release them when they are no longer helpful. Yoga is also a path to inner peace when even the practice itself cannot alleviate our pain -be it physical, mental, or emotional.
Just do the practice.
The benefits of practicing yoga are many. Our task is to enjoy them, but not to become attached to them. Not every practice is going to be stellar, and that is okay. Sometimes we will go to class grumpy, and we will leave class even grumpier. That is okay, too. Sometimes we just have a bad day. You have not failed -cannot fail- at your yoga practice, and the practice has not failed you. The days we feel discouraged by our practice are as significant as the days we experience bliss. In fact, perhaps the discouraging days are even more significant. They provide the rough surface where our hard edges become smooth.