I remember well the day, nearly ten years ago, that I walked into my first yoga studio. My reasons for being there were many; although, at the time, I thought only that I wanted to become a healthier person. A sophomoric and exuberant twenty-year-old, I thought that perhaps a yoga practice could melt away a few stubborn pounds, sculpt my strong shoulders and perhaps, tighten my buttocks. Maybe I could even learn how to relax. Years later, I smile with compassion, at the naïve nature of my younger self. Over the years, my yoga practice has certainly inspired health, but in ways I never imagined possible. It has been a vessel through which I have learned, time and time again, to take ownership of my health.
In truth, every time we step foot on our mats, we are choosing to take ownership of our own health. We are choosing to acknowledge any messages, desires, frustrations and needs that our bodies, minds or spirits, are willing to communicate. In its holistic way, yoga invites all who practice, to see that everything is connected: our physical bodies, emotional well-being and spiritual desires. Health, in the classical sense, is an intricate interweaving of all these parts. Thus, to be healthy, means to be balanced, always aware and mindful of our current state of being.
For many of us, the asana practice is the easiest and most fundamental first step on our path. It is in this sweet, physical practice that we learn to listen. As we sink into our first child’s pose or downward facing dog, our legs, shoulders, necks and other physical parts, speak to us. It is our breath that allows us the sacred time and space to then listen. From this place, we can listen also to the other requests of our physical body. Are we fatigued and in need of rest? Are we running ourselves ragged and our muscles tightening in response? Perhaps we even become more in-tuned with the foods that our physical body is craving. Are we craving a salad prepared with organic vegetables, fruits and whole grains, on a hot-pitta day in Colorado or are we in need of grounding qualities better found in baked sweet potatoes, ghee and scrambled eggs? Or, are we rattled with anxiety or frustration with the external world, and turn to diet soda, alcohol and sugar, in order to cope? What do our physical bodies need, today, in order to feel nourished?
In a similar way, our yoga practice invites us to listen, without judgement, to the other ways in which we can nourish ourselves. Just as our physical health is nourished by the foods we eat, our minds and hearts, are nourished also by the experiences we choose. As we move on our mats, we might find that certain postures evoke sudden emotions, like fear or grief. And as class continues, we might also find that these emotions need releasing, in order to heal. How that releasing will occur is a unique experience that we alone can facilitate. But, our practice kindly creates the space for inquisition. Similar to our physical needs of quality, nourishing food for fuel, rest for rejuvenation and clean water for hydration and cleansing, we have emotional needs that are vital to our health. In the stillness of our practice, perhaps we notice that we need more community, more time to be outside in nature, better quality time with friends and family or alone time to reflect and journal. What do we need to feel nourished emotionally?
Perhaps the greatest gift of health, found in our yoga practice, is permission to know our true selves. Away from the incessant noise of a society that prescribes the same way to happiness for us all, yoga invites a different way of living. Instead, the practice invites us to turn inward, to our truth, and to move into the world from a place of deep knowing. Only we alone can discern what foods our body naturally craves, what movements feel supportive in the physical body today and what aspects in our lives need to shift. No external person, magazine, doctor or loved one, can advise us how to best align with our truest self. The more time, energy and intention we dedicate to seeing our true selves, the more naturally we find health. From a place, then, of deep knowing, trusting and loving our bodies, minds and spirits, we will naturally choose the things that nourish our entire being: foods, movements, hobbies and community. And this is how yoga inspires us to take ownership of our health.