By: Nikki Hancock
Before I describe my experience with yoga and the benefits of my practice, I feel compelled to acknowledge a couple of important facts about yoga in the United States. First of all, there is the uncomfortable reality that yoga in the United States was appropriated by white people from Indians. The practice, as most of US citizens experience, has morphed and changed from its origins in India. Throwing in a word like Sanskrit here and there does not negate the cultural appropriation (some may argue this perpetuates it). I do not have a remedy for this except to be aware, take responsibility for your own part, and do your personal best to exercise cultural appreciation rather than appropriation. Secondly, I am a cis-gendered, straight, white female. Although I would love to believe all yoga classes welcome people who do not fall into those same social constructs, I am not naïve to the fact that this is not true and is not everyone’s experience. Yoga, like the rest of the United States, is slowly reckoning with its issues rooted in white supremacy and hopefully becoming a more welcome and aware space. I recommend Every Body Yoga and Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, both by Jessamyn Stanley, a queer, black yoga teacher from Durham, North Carolina for those interested in a different perspective from mine.
When I started yoga almost 20 years ago, I was drawn in by the acrobatic poses and learning how to twist myself into a pretzel. The truth, I would learn, is that yoga is not about either of those things. Yoga is a Sanskrit word that most people translate as “to join” or “to yoke,” in essence to unite breath and body. The poses or asanas that we understand as “yoga” in the West actually comprise only one part of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga that includes breathing, concentration, and other tenets. It is not necessary to know the history of yoga to enjoy its benefits, but it is helpful to understand that the yoga practiced in the United States and other Western countries originates from a deeper mindfulness practice and was used to prepare the body for meditation.
I explain all of this because yes, practicing yoga has some great physical benefits that I will discuss later. However, the unexpected but most important benefit of practicing yoga for me is that it helps me stay sane. Practicing yoga not only serves as a springboard for a sitting meditation but serves as a moving meditation as well. It focuses your concentration on your breathing and body and in doing so brings you back to the now, back to the present moment. It teaches you that even though you may be doing or feeling something challenging, your breath is always there; you can always come back to your center.
Soon enough, you realize that the true benefits of yoga occur off the mat: when you take a deep breath and accept the car pulling out in front of you rather than yell profanities or when you pause to consider the root of your emotions instead of lashing out at your partner. Do not be mistaken – practicing yoga does not transform you into a saint. However, much like meditation, over time and practice, you learn how to listen to your body and feel your emotions rather than just react to them.
If you have never practiced yoga, however, all of this might sound like A LOT. My boyfriend and I recently took a Zoom yoga class together and at the end he told me that he just ignored “all that mindfulness stuff” because it did not apply to him. After an initial moment of hurt, because “all that mindfulness stuff” is so important to me, I asked a few questions to get to the bottom of his sentiment. I learned that he worried about getting into the poses and doing them “right.” His brain literally did not have the space to think of the mindfulness prompts given by the teacher. Furthermore, he was judging himself for not being flexible “enough” or not being able to hold the standing poses as long as others.
If you take nothing from this essay but one thing, please let it be this: Yoga is not about being flexible or strong or twisting yourself into those aforementioned body pretzels. Each yogi’s journey is unique to him or her. The flexibility, the strength, the pretzel shapes, they may be by-products of the practice, but they are not the point of the practice. As a beginner, going into a yoga class with people who all seem to look a certain way definitely can be intimidating. Most experienced yogis started off confused and wondering if their downward dog was “good” too. (And yes, all of your downward dogs are beautiful because trying is beautiful.)
The point, if you will, is to meet your body as it is on that day. You will need to investigate to see if you can push yourself a tiny bit further or if today is a day your body needs to pull back. Try to find your breath because our society is fraught with anxiety and stress, exacerbated by our frantic pace of breathing. There is no good or bad yoga pose. There may be alignments that prove safer or options that present more of a challenge, but a person who can only touch his knees can practice equally as well as the person whose feet go behind her ears.
Now that you’ve come this far, what are some of the physical benefits that result from a yoga practice?
Stronger core – As I grow older, this becomes less about having six-pack abs and more about being able to hold myself up, to have good posture, to know that my center can hold me (both physically and metaphorically).
Flexibility – I don’t care if I can ever do a split again, but flexibility helps prevent injuries and I hope to be able to stay active for as many years as I can. Even the most moderate improvement in flexibility can ensure that I can always tie my shoes or not hurt myself reaching for the item on the top shelf.
Balance – Again, as I age, this has become paramount to me. Yes, I enjoy tree pose and doing other one-leg balances just for the challenge of it, but I also know that as I age falling becomes a real health risk. I hope that maintaining a yoga practice throughout my life has laid a foundation for me to be less susceptible to injurious falls when I am older.
Stronger (and more toned) legs and arms – This benefit depends on the nature of the yoga practice and like the previous benefits I mentioned, However, it takes consistency. I definitely notice that when I practice yoga more regularly, I feel and look stronger and less fluffy. More importantly, though, is that evidence-based studies suggest yoga can help build bone density and prevent osteoporosis.
Weight loss – Even if you do not engage in a vigorous physical practice of yoga, you may still notice some weight-loss benefits because they relate more to the mental aspect than the physicality of yoga. Doing yoga regularly helps you get in touch with your body. In turn, you become more mindful about what you put into it and how much well you feel after.
A sense of calm/stress release – In my 20 years of yoga practice only once have I left a yoga class more agitated than before I went in. The problem lied not with the yoga, but with me and my expectations of the class. Even before I had certain expectations of yoga, I noticed very early on that when I missed my weekly yoga class, I was more anxious and irritable than weeks when I attended. I did not fully understand why at that time; I just felt it to be true. This goes to show that you do not have to concentrate on “all that mindfulness stuff” to experience it just the same.
Yoga benefits the beginner just as much as the long-established practitioner. If you feel more comfortable with other beginners, there may be beginner classes in your area. Additionally, you can access many classes and teachers on YouTube. If you prefer or need a less physical class, yin yoga and yoga nidra classes may be of interest to those wanting to experience the calming benefits of yoga without the physical exertion. Pro tip for finding your best class – Not all yoga teachers are created equal. Listen and observe. If you do not like one teacher, do not be afraid to try another. There is a yoga teacher for every person!