Yoga is often misconstrued, or not quite understood. Not because it is a confusing subject and impossible to grasp but because it has become incredibly popular on social media and therefore people tend to glimpse only snapshots, rather than the whole picture.
If you just go by Instagram, then you will probably believe that Yoga is just incredibly complex asanas (postures) where you have to be able to fold in half like a piece of spaghetti or balance precariously on a rock being smashed by waves on one arm. For those of you who do believe this is what Yoga is, IT ISN’T! Yes, if you practice the yoga postures with supreme dedication you will perhaps one day be able to master these kind of poses but that is not what Yoga is. Nor is it necessarily the sole aim of a Yogi.
Yoga in Sanskrit means ‘union’ or ‘connection’. As we practice Yoga, it encourages our mind, body and breath to unify. Yoga connects us to a greater whole, whether that is spiritually; connecting with others or with ourselves. Ultimately, Yoga is a way of life, encouraging us to be mindful of ourself and the world surrounding us.
It is due to this broad definition that Yoga can become something different for everyone. For some it is about the spiritual journey, it brings them close to God, to the universe, to something bigger than themselves. For others, it is a physical journey, they can reconnect with their body, alleviating pain, discovering they can move with new ease and fluidity. For the rest, it is an emotional support, it helps them find calm amidst the storm, a union with their mind. The focus may change as you face new challenges within your life. Or it can become all three – a union of each aspect of Yoga. Whatever it is, the one consistent outcome seems to be a sense of contentment, of peace, of support, which Yoga can provide to any individual.
My personal experience with Yoga began as a physical journey. I had issues with my knee since a young age which everyone had put down to growing pains. However, once I got to 18 and my knee was still giving way my parents decided to send me for an MRI – as 10 years of extreme shooting pains in one leg seemed a little much. Here, I discovered my cartilage was eroding much faster than it should in my left knee and I essentially had the knee of a 50 year old. I started Physio to help build up the muscles around the joint so that I could hopefully avoid the need for an operation later on. Some time after, my Physio and Mum suggested I tried Yoga or Pilates, due to them being non impact sports which would predominantly work on my muscle strength . Pilates, it turned out ,wasn’t so much for me but Yoga clicked with me instantly. I was surprised, firstly, by the physical challenge it gave me but mainly I was overwhelmed by the sense of calm it provided. I had a very privileged childhood and was extremely lucky in so many respects. But there was also the challenge of my parents divorcing which had left me feeling incredibly angry and somewhat alone. I often flew off the handle in mad rages and felt an extreme lack of control. I was just extremely sad and unable to express myself. I didn’t instantly begin Yoga everyday but I started practicing on and off and the change which occurred when I did, was noticeable. Slowly, as I got older, I was able to let go of a lot of issues. My trust gradually returned, I took knocks along the way but I mellowed and began to let go. My anger became less volatile and I learnt to control it somewhat but also accepted it as part of who I was. I had always been so ashamed of my rage (not that it is still a nice thing to witness!) but by accepting it as a part of me, it suddenly became less of a battle to keep it in check.
It is because of this that the main element of yoga, for me, is a mental one. A few years ago I went on a silent mindfulness week in Sri Lanka. I didn’t speak, I meditated, journaled and practiced yoga. The revelations and realisations I had in those few days helped me more than any other form of therapy I had tried. I cried with sadness, with happiness; I mastered my first headstand and came to terms with a lot of things which had happened throughout my life. I understood that I was in a toxic relationship, that it was ok for me to let go of him, even if it felt like the hardest thing in the world. I realised I was incredible, I had achieved so much already. I realised I was strong by myself and I also discovered I could be my own therapist, my own councillor.
I tell you this, just to provide a snippet of what Yoga can do. Physically, Yoga has helped my knee beyond belief, I barely ever feel pain anymore, even skiing (once a complete nightmare) has become a pleasurable holiday where I can whizz down slopes with no fear of my knee collapsing beneath me. My strength has increased and my flexibility continues to grow. This is something I impress myself with everyday and I love that I continue to witness my own progress with asana on a day to day basis. Yet my main achievement and pull to Yoga, is the affect it has on my emotions. I am calmer, I find myself less stressed and far more understanding of others. Yoga still allows me to cry, to rage but is always waiting to help me return to happiness once more.
Not that Yoga should be a completely isolated and solo journey. Find those who will encourage you and keep pushing you throughout your practice. Surround yourselves my friends and family who want you to succeed. Through an understanding of myself and my life I have let go of those who made me see the worst in myself. Who made my life stressful and dramatic. I am now in a loving relationship, with someone who I never doubt and who supports me through every step. My friendships are based on mutual respect and love, whilst my family and I are closer than ever. Anger and resentment over past situations have long passed and instead I actually feel gratitude for what has happened and where it has led me.
That is my personal Yoga journey. And it is ongoing, an evolving relationship. Yoga didn’t help me achieve everything in life or make me get to where I am today. I did that. But Yoga gave me the tools to help me along the way, to make that journey easier, clearer and more peaceful.
Yoga is for everyone and it will be a different experience for everyone. Therefore don’t get put off by the fancy shapes you see on Instagram. If that is your goal then begin your practice and enjoy the journey to get there. But along the way you may discover other things about yourself and you should take that time to build a beautiful relationship with you.
Yoga is whatever you want it to be. Try it, use it and learn from it.