How Yoga Can Save Your Life

“The conundrum of body is the starting point in yoga from which to unravel the mystery of human existence.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

In the past year I’ve discovered that yoga is one of the best things I’ve ever done, and continue to do, for myself. What started out as an enjoyable way to stay fit turned into mind, heart, spirit, and body conditioning towards an all-around sustainably better metaphysical existence.

Since I completed the introductory teacher-training course in Rishikesh, India, I’ve been on an incredible yoga high that never crashes. To say I’ve learned so much from that course sounds weak and insufficient. Yoga has taught me self-deliverance.

I’ve experienced huge benefits from regular, sustained practice. I’m calmer and more conscious. My body is stronger and leaner. I’m generally a happier, more balanced person. I honestly feel that many of the world’s problems could be solved if we all just dedicated a little bit of time to yoga everyday.

Indeed, it sounds simple, but I’ve discovered some key life lessons by maintaining a regular daily yoga practice. And they’re too good to not share. If you’ve ever felt a little less than on top of life, factor a bit of yoga into your day and save your spirit.

Perfect balance is closer than you think.

I often take my night time asana practice outside where the light is dim. I stand on my mat, working my way into Vrksasana (tree pose), from the core through to the tips of my limbs. Every night I feel unsteady and I compare it to my morning practice that is strong, solid, on fire. Not like this limpy leaf stuff. I once considered chucking out nighttime balance poses altogether until I realized how planned and pessimistic that would be. My tree won’t get stronger unless I give it something to help it grow, right? So instead, I chose a drishti (focal point) that is closer, something still and right in front of me to help me stabilize. Focusing my attention on something too distant is a little like constantly looking towards the future. And something that is not completely still trips me up and steals the energy I’d rather use in other ways.

Strength is a core value.

When I stand still and every muscle and nerve is in one stationary pose, I feel my strongest. And I picture the powerhouse behind it. An image of a warrior. Sometimes my strength comes when I flow from one asana to the next in constant motion. Either way, I always have the choice to feel strong or weak, active or passive, or somewhere in between. Regardless of what I’m doing, where I am, with circumstances I can’t always control, when I respond from the core of my energy I am always strong.

It’s impossible to fall off a yoga mat.

The number of times I’ve brushed my yoga practice aside when I’m tired, hungover, sad, heartbroken, angry, or simply apathetic are too many to count. And they are all the same reasons I get choose to get back on my mat in an attempt to acknowledge those states, observe them, suss them out, and relieve myself of them. It’s not a big task. Whenever I fall off the mat, it’s a mere 1/4 inch to get back on. If I only get as far as laying my mat down on the ground and lying in Savasana (corpse pose) it’s a start. Allowing yourself to fall and lie down for a little while and rest, not from the fall of the high but from the high of the fall, is always a good thing.

The hardest and most worthwhile thing to be is still and present.

When I first started getting serious about my practice, I would inch a little further into every position, every few seconds, with each breath. I never stopped long enough to feel the stillness that emerges when I cease all movement, until recently. It was always about more, further, better, sooner. Lately, I’ve begun allowing myself to sink into an asana for three, four, sometimes ten minutes. I stay as long as feels right, to the point where I don’t even notice my own body anymore, like the ground just absorbed it. A parallelism to life. Where life happens doesn’t matter as much as where I am when it does. Here? Fighting battles in the head? Striding towards a future that never materializes into what it was supposed to be? Walking backwards? Limping forwards? Calm and aware of the divine precise moment? Like the seed in winter, deeply underground, stillness is where all the real work is happening even though it doesn’t appear that way.

Holding your breath won’t kill you.

Like yoga, life is unsustainable without breath. We literally can’t live unless we breathe. We typically think of breathing as a continuous series of inhales and exhales. But retention is a part of breathing, just like silence is sometimes part of the song. That’s where the peace is. It’s like climbing the mountain and pausing to enjoy the view before continuing forward.

A rubber yoga mat absorbs sadness better than a tissue.

My mat takes it all–my sweat, my tears, my dirty feet and my filthy heart. Every energy on every given day, and the transformation of that energy as I move across my mat each morning or night. I can dissolve or create whatever energy, mood, feeling, or thought I want on the space of that mat. Ultimate power, control, and consciousness in a slab of recycled rubber. I can cry my way through yoga just because it feels good to do so, never sad like when I cry into a tissue. I can laugh out loud or sing or dance. My mat is my platform for life, materialized. A space I can create whenever, wherever I am.

Don’t just let go. Fully and consciously release.

Breath is the centre of yoga, and yogasana has taught me a lot about how to breathe properly so I no longer have to grit my teeth through each challenging position. I’ve learned to inhale fully and without haste, to hold on when appropriate, and to release fully and slowly, until my lungs are deflated and there is nothing left. It has taught me about non-attachment. Accept, hold, release, and let go. Holding onto anything longer than necessary, longer than productive for self-growth deprives us of energy and depletes our life force. We are allowed to–meant to–fully release anything that prevents the steady flow of life that always involves loss and gain.

Yesterday’s expectations are today’s disappointments.

I always try my best, but my best changes from day to day depending on many different factors. How I slept, what I ate, my physical health, the emotional baggage I’m packing around. Progress is not always a step ahead. Sometimes it’s a limp backwards. Sometimes it’s a leap forwards. It doesn’t matter, as long as my heart and attention are involved in whatever I’m doing, regardless of whether it earns me a trophy. 

Truth is patient.

Nothing works properly in my body if I’m cold. When I indulge in a slow warm up at the start of my practice my limbs become buttery, my spine bendy, and everything seems to grow with little effort. But I need time to create this heat. It’s the only way I can move forward in my practice on a cold morning without injury. If I spring right into a backbend because I’m hasty to get on with it, to push myself into something I’m not quite ready for, I end up hurting myself. The point is, yoga can teach us the truth of our limits in situations, whether we like it or not. It can also teach us the truth of our power. Both take time, self-trust, and perseverance.

Thought can be your worst enemy.

Iyengar writes, “…thought cannot solve the problems caused by thought…”. Yoga allows me a space to shut my mind off and feel my way through my practice. When I start thinking about what I’m doing, those thoughts stymie my ability to feel and I get very critical and demanding of myself. This is not the point of yoga–to fracture the spirit. Sometimes I have to just make up my practice as I go, just as we have to make life up as we go, to feel our way through it rather than starting with a pre-planned sequence. And I learn to trust the decisions I make, without qualifying them as right or wrong, good or bad. Following a feeling rather than a thought will always lead to a good place.

Pain is the best guru.

Yoga can be a bit painful because the body is a storehouse for emotion. When you start opening up parts of the body that have been closed a very long time, pain will occur, either physically or emotionally. Most pain is mind-made but some pain is as real as the sun. Stop trying to escape pain and instead find comfort in discomfort and let pain teach you. Feel it and then move through and beyond it. Pain is necessary for growth, it can teach us compassion, it can deliver us “ultimate emancipation” (Iyengar) if we allow ourselves to go into it instead of avoiding it. This is not an exercise in masochism. Rather, it’s about accepting that pain is present in nearly every part of life, even the sweetest parts. It is only our response to pain that will either intensify it or relieve it.

Space is essential for growth.

Of the five elements, ether–or space, is necessary for all the others (air, water, fire, earth). Nothing can exist without space. And nothing can grow unless there is space to accommodate it. Not trees, or love, or relationships. Yogasana is not about becoming more bendy and moving our bodies into pretzel like positions. It’s about removing a few unnecessary attachments every day to create space so the body can grow, the mind can expand, the heart can contain more. And with every practice I create more space in my joints, my muscle fibres, my organs, my lungs, my experience.

Inquiry is always the right answer.

Remember those math problems in high school where you had to come to the answer via one specific formula otherwise it was wrong, even if the answer was right? Well, yoga is a little bit like that. I’ve been to a lot of classes where people look around at each other to compare their position, more concerned with how a pose looks rather than how they got into it. Yoga teaches us healthy ways for achieving an end position, with the focus being on how to get there, rather than just then end state. Breathe, stretch, twist, align. The method for achieving a perfect asana deserves way more attention than the end result. One step at a time I move my way through each increment of the position. Step by step, little by little, asking those questions of myself and my practice, making micro adjustments as I go. If I jump right into an asana I not only risk injuring myself but I also miss all the learning along the way.

Trust starts with self.

I used to put a lot of faith in the mirror and the disappointment or pleasant surprise it showed me on a given day, in the context of both my yoga practice and simple acts of vanity. I’ve been around this world long enough to accept myself as I am… mostly. I’ve been practicing yoga long enough now that I can trust how my body feels in each position to know that my practice is healthy and correct. I don’t need a mirror or external point of reference to know what feels right or wrong. When I really listen to my body, it tells me everything I need to know.

“The light that yoga sheds on life is something special. It is transformative. It does not just change the way we see things; it transforms the person who sees.” – Iyengar

I was hugely inspired by the following book. If you want to take your spiritual yoga practice to next level, read this book:

B.K.S. (2005). Light on Life: The Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom. Rodale Publishers.

Photo: In “The Beatles” ashram in Rishikesh, India

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