Yoga is often seen as an exercise that will help you get flexible, strong, age gracefully, improve balance, and combat stress.
Although this is all true, I have found the most profound benefits are those that happen at a deeper level. With over seven years of teaching experience, I’ve learned that the most profound benefits of yoga you may not know about are:
1. Deeper Awareness and Enhanced Listening Skills
So many of us are accustomed to telling our body what to do, without giving it credit for all it does for us and how we are actually feeling in the moment. We live at a rapid pace where it’s not customary to ask our body how it feels. Rather we force, shove, and push our bodies to do things that may be the opposite of healthy and helpful for our body and mind. The practice of yoga is primarily focused around sharpening our awareness of our body and giving gratitude for all that our body does for us.
So many of us get angry when our body can’t do as many push ups as we want, or move as fast as we’d like. It’s rare to take a moment and thank our body for all that is does for us,(such as the daily acts of living so many of us take for granted). When we start to slow down, and tune in to our body, we gain a keener sense of awareness for what our body can do, and we learn to treat it with respect. Instead of forcing our body into a shape it’s not meant to go into, we learn to listen to what our body is telling us, and to act appropriately based on that feedback.
The longer you practice yoga, the more you start to learn that the practice has nothing to do with how far you can get into a pose. It has everything to do with how present you are while in the pose, and actually listening to the feedback your body gives you. In effect, yoga helps sharpen our listening skills.
2. Acceptance and Self Love
There are many poses that are extremely difficult to get into. It may look easy on the outside but can be deeply challenging from the inside. For example, a simple forward bend can be challenging and we may even feel embarrassed that we cannot touch our toes. However, the practice of yoga has nothing to do with touching our toes. If you think about it, there is no reason on earth to touch your toes. You will not be any healthier or happier if you do.
However, in our goal-oriented society, it makes sense that people want to reach a “maximum” point of a pose based on what is illustrated on the cover of a yoga magazine. Although misguided, it makes sense that most of us strive to look like the cover of a magazine, when in actuality, we don’t even know why we want that. It’s a psychological conditioning that makes us think we are not good enough the way we are, and if only we can perfect a pose then we might like ourselves better. The truth is, nothing you do on the outside will make you like yourself better. It needs to come from the inside.
The yoga practice has a great way of teaching us this is, if we choose to practice in a thoughtful manner. In yoga the main practice is to learn to practice acceptance for where your body is in this moment, and to give love and thanks for all that your body can do for you. As you begin to practice this on your mat, this philosophy begins to pour into your life leading to greater self acceptance and self love in every area of your life.
This is one of many reasons why yoga is so powerful. Although yoga is not goal oriented, perhaps if there was a “goal” to yoga it would be greater self-love. As we enhance the love for ourselves, we can send that love out to the world. This is where the transformation of yoga lives. When we treat ourselves better through acting compassionately and with love to ourselves, we are then able to give this kind of compassion and love to everyone around us. This is the power and ultimate benefit of yoga.
3. Less Reactive and More Peaceful
Most people have natural reactions when thing don’t go the way we plan. For example, you might find that you swear or get angry if you someone cuts you off in traffic. You might feel depressed when you have a fight with a family member, and then elated when you get your hair cut or make a new purchase. The practice of yoga teaches us to find a more peaceful steady balance no matter what is happening. Thus if you are in a pose that is challenging and you feel like you can barely do it, your state of mind is still peaceful which is represented by the calm and steady breath.
Likewise, if you are in the maximum stretch of a pose, instead of feeling like you are better than everyone else, the idea is to maintain that same deep calm breath, whether you love or hate the pose you are in. Through training ourselves to maintain a steady breath and steady state of mind no matter what comes our way in the yoga class, the same psychological principles start to make their way into our life. Life will always have ups and downs, but at the core, the question is: can you maintain a steady grace? Even through the moments of happiness and sadness, can you maintain a deep sense of stability and humility no matter what comes your way? This is the kind of deep peace that a continued yoga practice starts to create, if you practice with a mentality of awareness. Awareness is key. Having the intention to practice being peaceful, less reactive, and more harmonious with your body, and releasing your need to compete, is where the greatest benefit resides.
The truth is you can go to yoga and strengthen your ego, your reactions, your vanity, and self-hatred. Or you can consciously go into yoga with the mental mindset that in this room you will practice being present, gentle, kind, and listening to your body’s feedback. The real benefit of yoga is truly determined by the mental mindset you choose to sculpt and strengthen.
There is no secret, the greatest benefit of yoga is in the mentality you chose. So before going to your next yoga class, (or if you’re brand new), all you really need to know is that you are perfect as you are. Allow the class to be an opportunity to take care of your body, to practice listening to what your body is telling you, and to let go of your need to compete, judge, and criticize. All you need to do is show up, be present, and to the best of your ability listen to your body (even if that means ignoring the teachers instructions!)