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Back when I was working for RELEVANT Magazine, I wrote a piece about how yoga had helped me become more comfortable in my own skin. How it had helped me embrace my body’s strength instead of hyper-focusing on the bits I wished I could change – the chicken pox scars, the stretch marks, the knobby knees.
The article resonated with other people who saw themselves in my story. They were on their own journeys toward self-acceptance, and they appreciated that I was offering an honest look into my struggles. But here’s the thing about being vulnerable – especially in a public forum – it opens you up to scrutiny and often to resulting criticism. On this particular piece, a handful of critics posted strongly-worded comments – mostly expressing dismay at my references to yoga.
They claimed that yoga is “the devil’s tool.” That it’s the equivalent of witchcraft.
On the one hand, I can see where these people are coming from. Anything can be destructive if it takes God’s place as the Ultimate Provider, Savior, Comforter, and Redeemer of our lives. Anything can be the “devil’s tool” – even really good things like food and music and marriage and family and, yes, yoga.
But those things can also be really really good – as long as they play a supporting role in our lives. They’re good gifts from a good father, not The Gift (James 1:17).
For me, yoga has been a true gift of grace, and it continues to teach me so much. That’s partly why people refer to yoga as a “practice” – there’s always more to learn, more ways to strengthen your posture, and more room to deepen your connection to your breath. The goal is growth, not perfection. And for a recovering perfectionist like me, that’s exactly what I’ve needed over the last few years.
So, I wanted to share with you some of what I’ve learned through yoga – some of the practices that have transformed me, both on and off the mat. And if you decide to try your hand at a yoga flow – whether at home in front of your computer or in your neighborhood studio – then Namaste to you, my friend.
1. Set your intention. At the beginning of each yoga class, we stand at attention in samasthiti, bringing our awareness to our breath, coming back to our center, and setting an intention for our practice.
For me, my intention is always a prayer. I stand at the top of my mat, my weight equally balanced on both feet, my eyes closed, and I pray. I submit my worries to God and thank Him for the hour ahead – where I get to simply be with Him and move the body He’s given me.
2. Focus on your breath. Breathing is the first thing you learn in yoga. You learn how to breath deep from your belly and let your breath guide you through each pose, every sun salutation. Even when your pace quickens or you’re twisted in a bind, the goal is to open up your body and keep your breath steady.
Learning to focus on my breath has not only strengthened my yoga practice by keeping me connected to my core, but it’s also lessened my anxiety. By focusing on the rise and fall of my chest or the breath moving in and out of my abdomen – my mind can move off of the concerns that were preoccupying my mind and onto gratitude for my life.
The Bible talks a lot about the importance of breath, and its connection to life and the Spirit. Job even says, “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4). So it should come as no surprise that the quality of our breath can help increase the peace of bodies and minds. When we’re focused on breathing, we’re not worried about much else.
Beyond the breathing that’s central to a quality yoga flow, many yogis talk about the benefits of “cleansing breaths.” I now find myself taking these cleansing breaths in stressful meetings, on the train, in line at the grocery store…really anywhere I have a tendency to get overwhelmed. To practice this yourself, take a deep breath, hold it in for a few seconds, then purse your lips as if you were going to whistle. Now start exhaling, little by little.
As I do this, I often breath in “God is with me” and breath out “I am at peace.” This mantra helps me stay centered and focus on God’s presence with me, no matter what my external surroundings may be. I breathe in love and joy and light and breathe out all the negativity and stress that distracts from the calling God’s given me – to love and to serve.
3. Practice presence. Focusing on my breath not only gives me strength to flow through vinyasas and suspend my body in half moon pose, it also keeps me present. By bringing attention to the breath flowing through my body, I stay grounded on my mat, centered in the space I’m occupying for that hour.
My mind may have a tendency to wander back to the office or toward what I’m going to make for dinner that night. And when it does, I don’t fret, I just bring my attention back to the here and now.
This practice of presence has been incredibly helpful in my recovery from anxiety and perfectionism.
Eckhart Tolle says, “Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there.’”
Rather than wanting to be somewhere else when I’m on my yoga mat, I try to appreciate where I am. Rather than stressing about everything that remains to be done on my to-do list, I thank God for the hour I have to simply be present with Him.
4. Quit judging. “Where you are right now is exactly where you’re supposed to be.” This is something I tell myself when I’m practicing presence, and it’s a great way of quieting my mind’s tendency to compare myself to everyone around me. Yes, there may be someone less than a foot to my right and my left – yoga classes in San Francisco tend to be packed to the gills – but I’m on my mat. I have my space. And I don’t need to worry about the people around me.
We’re all just practicing side-by-side. We’re all doing our best.
So, instead of focusing on how that person is doing a headstand and I’m still struggling to get the right form in down dog, I remind myself that I’m doing what’s right for my body that day, and I’m thankful for the strength I do have. For how I’ve grown since I first started practicing.
5. Give thanks continually. That truth comes straight from the Bible, and I bring it with me onto my yoga mat. One of the most incredible gifts of yoga has been the opportunity to practice gratitude. As I mentioned earlier, you’re encouraged to really be present with your body.
As Proverbs 14 says, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” Those words are powerful. By envying this woman’s nose or that woman’s calves or that guy’s seemingly perfect crow pose, we’re actually causing harm to our bodies. Worry, anxiety and envy deteriorate your bones, but a peaceful heart nourishes us. I would imagine my worries also grieve my Father who knit me together carefully in my mother’s womb. He’s so in love with me – something I am still trying to grasp – so it pains him to hear me put myself down.
So, in yoga, instead of wishing I were better or stronger, I’m simply present and thankful. I express gratitude for how my body can move and hold me up, and how it can even change during that hour on the mat. As I move through various poses and increase the intensity of my flow, my body warms up and opens up.
And the entire time, I just keep breathing.
Check back next week for Part 2 of “10 Life-Changing Effects of Yoga.” In the meantime, I’d love to know what practices have helped you? Whether it’s yoga or coloring or reciting a mantra of truth, what helps you stay present and find peace?