"Yoga is the practice of quieting your mind." -Patanjali
When I first heard about yoga I was skeptical. Albeit, I was 18 years old and skeptical of most things that my mom was in to, but that is neither here nor there. My mom had been going regularly to this class at the YMCA where she was learning about touching her toes, standing on her head, and being present in her body. After she had been going for about 3 months, I began to notice that she did seem more flexible, more optimistic, and even taller. So, I decided to do a little more investigating.
I began by following along with one of my mom's yoga DVDs, Power Yoga with Rodney Yee, and...it kicked my ass. The sequence of poses lasted 45 minutes and it was the longest 45 minutes of my life. While I was panting and struggling, my mom and Rodney were seamlessly transitioning through very basic shapes with rhythmic efficiency. I was frustrated, humbled, and also intrigued. The day after I was sore but determined to learn how to get closer to the kind of effortless grace I had witnessed.
The next week I went to a class taught by a woman named Melody. It was both intimidating and strange to be in the same room with 15 mostly middle-aged women while we moved about on our rectangular mats. To my surprise I wasn't the only one with struggles. Looking around I noticed that each and every one of the students had at least one pose or one transition that was challenging. Some, like me, had multiple. Melody reminded us throughout the class to stay focused on our breath and our own internal landscape of sensations and emotions--that the purpose of yoga was not to fixate on the destination (which creates judgment) but to enjoy the journey of exploring the poses. To engage with the difficulties and triumphs that presented themselves along the way.
Luckily, I was young, injury-free, and a quick learner. During my first semester in college I had progressed enough to make it through the entire DVD with Rodney with something that was beginning to resemble ease. I enrolled in a yoga course at school and liked it so much that I took one every semester until I graduated. When I was studying abroad, I found a yoga class taught in Spanish. Wherever I went I would find yoga. When there wasn't a class I would do it on my own. After college I went to a two-week yoga teacher training intensive and moved to Chattanooga to start teaching others. Over the course of 4 years, yoga had become one of the most important parts of my life. I continued to study and teach yoga throughout grad school and during the first few years after moving to Chattanooga the second time.
It is difficult to adequately explain the benefits of yoga, but I will try. Yes, there are the physical benefits of more flexibility, better posture, and increased balance. There are the mental benefits of calming your mind and focusing on your breath. There are the character benefits of increased patience and understanding of self and others. But perhaps the greatest benefit comes from the word 'yoga' itself--the union of the self with the world. The first time I remember being truly relaxed as an adult was after completing that DVD in my college dorm room. The final pose in the sequence (as with most yoga sequences) was Savasana, or 'corpse pose.' As I was lying on my back on the floor, I distinctly remember falling into the Earth and becoming one with everything around me. The depth and novelty of that single moment was so strong that I can still feel it today.
In many ways I live my life (which includes yoga) in an effort to return to such a state of being. I find it everyday in little ways. During work, during meals, during conversations, in the gym, in the woods, etc. Some places are easier to find union than others, but it is always present if you look hard enough. Yoga can open a portal to a sense of belonging that you may have never experienced before. Yoga is an entire system of which the physical practice is just one part. A good teacher will help guide you through them all.