In popular culture, yoga is typically portrayed as an exercise routine for limber, attractive women. In reality, though, dedicated students of yoga are impossible to pigeonhole, and yoga is something far beyond an exercise routine. Everybody — all ages, body types, races, genders — can tap into the subtle currents of existence that keep us coming back to our practices, day after day, month after month, and year after year.
The physical benefits of yoga are trite (and true) and well-documented in Yoga Journal and clickbait advertisements:
But what I see as the most interesting benefits of yoga are much more subtle, and much harder to market.
It's easy to bang our way through decades of life ignoring how we feel, how we think, how we operate. Despite the incredible contradiction of using our physical bodies to transcend our physical experience, it works. Hatha Yoga techniques — asana, pranayama, mudra, bandha, drishti — allow for anybody to start cultivating a sense of subtlety, which starts with our bodies, lungs, and breath, and surprisingly, stretches out into our minds, thoughts, and very patterns of existence.
Yoga has a truly remarkable ability to allow practitioners to get into some fundamental elements of our operational humanity — ego, ambition, fear, anger, resentment, skepticism — and begin to develop an understanding of ourselves beyond the grossest emotional states driving us. This can manifest as new perspectives on our own lives, better understanding of our goals or career ambitions, clarity around the impacts of personal relationships, and any number of other insights.
Yoga can genuinely illuminate our patterns of thinking and behaving. For many people trained in classical Western fields, the left brain becomes so dominant that the right hemisphere quits participating — yoga can re-engineer our thinking patterns and have a tremendous impact on how we interact with the world.
Practicing hatha yoga impacts everybody who participates, from the rigorous daily Ashtangi with decades of experience to the casual once-a-week practitioner, and the popularity of yoga speaks to its ability to deliver tangible value.
Like anything else, yoga is not easy to begin. It's hard to feel like the smallest fish in the pond, but the fact is that nobody is the unique snowflake they consider themselves to be in this situation. Most people started with the exact same disadvantages: a skeptical mind, a body that doesn’t feel ready (in all the millions of ways we can feel this way), a life spent either with too little physical activity or too much that just doesn’t feel quite right. But after a modicum of effort, most people find that they have some particular skill, whether strength or a flexible back or a knack for inversions or anything else, and those skills have far less to do with demographics and with a person’s shape and size than is commonly assumed. The middle aged barrel-chested man with an amazing backbend. The skinny women pressing to handstands. The ex-marathoner sitting comfortably in Lotus. You never know what strengths you have until you break out of the old ways of being that didn’t have room for them.
Examine your Self. Make your Truth. Practice yoga. See how far the rabbit hole goes.
Paul B spent ten years practicing Ashtanga yoga to undo the patterns three degrees in engineering taught him. He currently writes software for biotech companies to support his yoga habit.
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