Long before there was yoga (in my world), there was the love of a good stretch. You know what I mean, right? Isn’t it a delicious feeling to wake up in the morning, yawn, and take that first closed-eyed, golden stretch, raising your arms above your head and extending every limb as you leave the dream world behind? Later in the day, maybe even unconsciously, you might roll your shoulders out or twist your body, sighing deeply. And maybe, when you do, for a moment, you feel a sense of complete relaxation, a feeling that as your body has stretched and expanded so has the world of possibilities, if even just a little.
Common sense tells us that our bodies are not meant to be tight and scrunched up. Look at how babies move, how effortlessly and fluidly, like they are made of (adorable) elastic. This is what we might be trying to reclaim a little bit of every time we stretch our muscles and sigh a relieved “Ahhhh.”
I didn’t view yoga as an activity meant for ordinary people looking to expand the limits of their bodies and minds.
Even though the words “yoga” and “stretching” are often used in the same contexts, I have to say I never confused yoga with “just stretching,” mostly because my initial awareness of yoga was peripheral at best. I was once a prototypical head-dwelling creature who thought of yoga, if at all, as a distant, New Age form of fitness as alien to me as Jazzercise was when I was a kid in the ’80s whose major “athletic” pastime involved taking books out of the library and reading them. If pressed to think about it, though, even before I practiced yoga, I probably still would have argued that one of yoga’s main goals was to transform people from different shades of stiff to impossibly contortionist. I certainly didn’t view yoga as an activity meant for ordinary people looking to expand the limits of their bodies and minds or consider it a “maintenance tool” for one’s overall well-being.
For the longest time, even as I entered stretch after casual stretch—my body’s way of hinting to me of the possibilities of a whole world of greater mind-body union—I just didn’t connect my largely unconscious stretches with yoga, which could provide me with a systematic and deeply transformative wellness practice. But the everyday stretch took on a new dimension once I started practicing yoga. Here are three aspects of that deeper dimension that I learned as my love for stretching slowly morphed into a regular asana practice that blew open my perceptions of what yoga is and can be.
1. Being flexible doesn’t make you a yogi.
As I already alluded, I haven’t always realized that my body, mind, and spirit are one interconnected entity.
Then, when I was still a fledgling yogi, I traveled to Thailand and found a little piece of paradise in a small town near the border of Laos. The stunning Mekhong River, gentle breezes, palm trees, and an amazing community of fellow travelers captured my heart, but I was especially drawn to the yoga classes offered there, which I loved for providing me with a philosophical and spiritual context for a sustained asana practice and which inspired me to return and do a month-long yoga practice and intensive philosophy program a few months later.
As I started engaging in yoga as a regular daily practice, I learned that I have a fair amount of natural flexibility—but that yoga was about much more than just taking my relatively limber self as “far” or “deep” into a pose as possible. Flexibility was not helping me in balance poses and was not supporting me in poses requiring a lot of leg, abdominal, or arm strength. In other words, I found I lacked many elements of a well-rounded asana practice, and also that no one of these elements (flexibility, balance, strength) in isolation brings a practitioner to the desired mind-body union. A yogi, I came to see, works to cultivate all of these abilities, as well as the through-line of the breath, to still and ground the body, so that we can begin to invite and approach serenity of mind.
I found yoga, then, beyond the physical act of stretching—in working with breath, mindfulness, and also ahimsa (non-violence), the first of the five yamas or moral guidelines outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (a seminal text of the yoga tradition), which was taught during the philosophy portion of the program. In tandem with learning present-moment awareness and breathing, I learned to move closer to a compassionate and accepting attitude toward my own body as I confronted challenging postures and my habitual need for “perfection.” Flexibility started, for me, to take a backseat to self-awareness, to the discovery of the gifts my unique body offers as I increase my abilities and transcend my limitations, and to the impact this new self-awareness was having in my life.
By training the mind to focus on the breath, rather than drift away in distraction or fixate on “nailing a pose,” yogis can attend to the physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings that arise as we stretch and move. We can then start to inhabit postures in a more profound way, namely by being fully present to the experience of being in our unique bodies in a particular moment in time. Through that experience, we learn about ourselves, not just about our bodies but about how we think and feel about our bodies and about how those perceptions and feelings affect our self-image and our actions; in learning to see these often unconscious factors and how they affect us, we may also gain greater acceptance of ourselves. That’s what yoga is about.
My limitations gave me the desire to harness my powers of attention and will as I reached into the deep crevices of my psyche.
2. Yogic stretching is a gateway to an inner journey.
As I continued with my practice in the months after the yoga immersion, I approached my areas of strength with gratitude and persistently worked on poses with which I struggled, like those in the warrior series and chaturanga dandasana. I felt defeated at times, but I see now that this was perfect; it was exactly the journey I needed to take. My limitations gave me the desire to harness my powers of attention and will as I reached into the deep crevices of my psyche, and drummed up the will to remain in these challenging poses.
Before long, because of my newfound ability to pay attention, I could enter a place of mental focus, and I found that, through active will, I could allow my body and mind to converge in a place of rest. Rest! This was a luxury I realized I hardly allowed myself in life, and this fact reduced me to tears more than a few times, both on and off the mat. I was amazed by how simply allowing myself to actively be in a stretch—that is, being fully present and mentally engaged in the pose with the intention of expanding my body’s strength and/or range of motion—enabled me to enter a meditative state as, eyes closed, I could picture my muscles extending and my tension easing. It felt like a mini-vacation for my body and mind.
The inner journey I began in those days continues today. Recently, on a ten-day silent meditation retreat, I was doing gentle asanas between meditation sessions to relieve some physical tension—some of my regular go-to’s, like ardha matsyendrasana (sitting half spinal twist) and gentle seated forward bends. Then, my instinct took me into sphinx pose. (Considering my achy back, cobra seemed out of reach.) At first, I felt no effect. Then, I listened to my body, and I made a tiny adjustment—a simple lifting up of my chest and a tiny movement of my spine to the right, an adjustment that would have been absolutely imperceptible to an outside observer—and the effect was profound.
I felt a huge opening across my chest and collarbones, bringing a new fullness to my breath. I felt like my chest was going to burst from feeling so full until I realized the feeling was not explosive at all but infinite: I felt like I had transcended a barrier and that the entire universe was waiting for me to discover it. It struck me then how miraculous the subtleties of a well-rounded yoga practice are when we allow awareness in and work with the body to transform our inner self.
3. It’s truly about letting it all go.
As my yoga practice continued, my mat became a place of refuge where my daily concerns slipped into the background and I strove for a union between body, mind, and emotion that I could carry with me into the rest of my day. As I did, I was shocked to learn, as I leaned into certain asanas, just how much tension I was holding in my body all the time. I thought about the way my shoulders squeeze in as I type on my computer all day, the way I unconsciously suck my belly in to appear thinner, or the way I clench up when I feel resistance to a situation or when a negative emotion is triggered. I seemed to be living in a near-constant state of being as tightly wound as possible. Through my yoga practice, I’ve given myself the gift of time and space in which to ask myself why I do this, why I do not gravitate naturally toward easing and releasing tension. How is it that so many of us come to feel that tightness is a natural state? We all carry stress in our bodies—from our busy lifestyles, our duties and obligations, from any number of issues from our pasts. Sometimes we feel it more than other times. Even the common phrase “keeping it all together” seems to imply and valorize tightness, a need to bind ourselves, rather than let go. Our de facto natural state becomes one of tucking/sucking/holding-in.
Yoga allows us to reclaim pliability and expansion as our natural way of being.
Yoga, with its emphasis on mindfulness of breath and body, gives us the opportunity to stretch and to breathe through the tight spots, to unlock our most secret internal hiding places where we protect and guard our pain and myriad fears, and to let them go. It allows us to reclaim pliability and expansion as our natural way of being.
I’ve come to see yoga as no less than a revolution that gives me the ability to guide myself where I seldom allow myself to go in day-to-day life: to a place of freedom in which I can become acquainted with my limits and my pain, gently ease into them, and learn to let go and just be.
Through yoga, I started having what is probably the most important conversation of all: one with the integrated whole that I am, that we all are.