While the roughly 24 million adults who practiced yoga in 2013 (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/03/01/yoga-health-fitness-trends/23881391/) have unique life stories and dreams, one thing is common to all who continue to practice – we do so because on some level it makes our lives better. Ask anyone who practices regularly, or even somewhat sporadically, yoga improves your life. Yoga’s many benefits are touted everywhere from glossy magazines to scientific journals, the medical establishment and even the military.
Those of us who have been practicing yoga (for the purposes of this piece ‘yoga’ means physical postures combined with specific breathing techniques) consistently over time are happier, more productive, experiencing more joy and less fear; we are – at least to some degree – flourishing. But what does this mean?
‘Flourishing’ is more than just plodding along and more than just being in a good mood, it’s thriving. When you are thriving you can deal better with stress and meet life’s challenges without becoming completely overwhelmed and you can bounce back quicker. In short, you are more resilient. Regular yoga practice helps deal with stress and promotes equanimity. Flourishing is not about eliminating negative experiences; it’s about being better able to deal with them.
And it’s more than that, more than happiness, the Holy Grail in our society. It’s about doing what you were put on the earth to do, living your purpose, claiming your place at the cosmic table. This is the yogic concept of dharma, the unique destiny that each one of us has and must fulfill in order to really thrive.
When you are living your dharma, you are doing that thing that only you can do in your unique way. That might mean being an athlete, or a physics teacher, or a parent, a priest, a dancer; the possibilities are infinite because each one of us will add our own signature style to whatever it is that we do. Regular yoga practice helps you uncover, or step more fully into, your dharma because yoga gives you the tools to get quiet and listen to your inner knowing (dhi), to respond to your inner GPS, which is programmed to take you towards your unique destiny and purpose.
Here are 10 ways that regular yoga practice can help you flourish:
1.Yoga gets you connected to your breath.
Steady deep breath is calming for the mind and releases feel-good drugs from the brain which circulate throughout the nervous systems and endocrine and limbic systems, affecting how we feel. Deep breathing also circulates oxygen throughout the body nourishing the blood and internal organs.
2.Yoga is exercise.
Yoga gets you moving, gets the blood flowing and lymph circulating. This is a good thing; we all need exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle.
3.Yoga helps you get present.
Focusing on the movement of breath from inhale to exhale, and repeat, is what differentiates yoga from exercise. (Not that there is anything to disparage about exercise, see above.) Yoga uses the body to work with the mind. Harnessing your awareness on your breath trains the mind to stay in the present moment, difficult as that may be. Undoubtedly your mind wanders here and there, remembering, fantasizing, planning, projecting; one breath at a time you come back to the present moment.
4.Yoga may clean up your diet.
As you start to feel better physically and mentally through regular yoga practice, you may become more discerning about what you put into your mouth. Who hasn’t had the experience of practicing after a night of over-indulgence in all the wrong stuff (fried food, too many cocktails…) and feeling god awful on the mat the next day, hungover and stinking of garlic? Enough of those kind of gnarly practices and you start to make different choices.
5.Yoga may help you become stronger and leaner.
Many people find they lose weight over time as a result of a regular yoga practice in addition to becoming stronger and feeling fitter overall. This is not to say that everyone should lose weight, rather that consistent physical practice can bring your body towards balance in line with what exactly it is that your specific body needs.
6.Yoga increases your sensitivity.
The journey of yoga is one of increased sensitivity to yourself. By repeatedly returning to the mat, slowing down and pausing to take a breath, you start to become more self-aware. Aware of your habitual patterns, which foot you step forward and back with, where your mind goes when you’re trying to avoid an uncomfortable situation, what kind of judgments you make about yourself. Such increased awareness can yield insights that are not always comfortable, but they are an essential precursor to making meaningful change in behavioral patterns on the path towards more freedom and wellbeing.
7.Yoga teaches us to stay.
Frequently yoga practice leads to uncomfortable places where the urge to bail is strong. Intense and not always pleasant sensations often show up on the yoga mat. Think screaming thighs and tight hips! The practice teaches you to stay and breathe through it, to stop wasting energy resisting. To soften into now.
8.Yoga is about surrender.
Surrender to the present moment, to sensation, to the limitations of your body. Off the mat, to the machinations of a world that you cannot control.
9.Yoga grows your brain.
Plasticity is the brain’s ability to reconfigure itself, to establish, as well as, dissolve connections between its different parts. Learning a new language causes the brain to reorganize and grow new connections between different parts, as does acquiring a new skill. Yoga is both learning a new language (the poses are like words and how they are sequenced is grammar and just as you can’t speak without breath, you can’t practice yoga either) and acquiring a new skill. This is good news for anyone concerned with mental agility and maintaining optimal brain health.
10.Yoga breeds resilience.
Rebounding in the face of life’s travails, dealing with stress, keeping on when the going gets rough. All are types of resilience. Yoga puts extra fuel in your engine at such stressful times as you remember to utilize the yogic tools of deep breathing, responding instead of reacting, witnessing your own behavioral patterns and coming home to your innate equanimity and presence.
It takes time. Sustained practice is key.