What Is a Yogi, Anyway?

October 22, 2014    BY Sonya Elliott

A once-a-week (maybe) practitioner reflects on yoga’s restorative powers. 

I’m holding my trembling body in downward-facing dog, my arms extended in front of me, fingers spread wide, palms splayed out on my purple mat. My butt arcs high in the air, but my toes squish together on the mat, and my heels can only wave to the ground. My legs ache, and sweat pours down my back. I am clearly no yogi.

I’m holding my trembling body in downward-facing dog, my arms extended in front of me, fingers spread wide, palms splayed out on my purple mat.

What is a yogi anyway? A master of yoga, according to dictionary.com. Well, I can tell you one thing: I am NOT that. But the dictionary also defines a yogi as someone who practices yoga. Now we’re getting closer. Traditionally, this ancient philosophy advocated and prescribed a course of physical and mental disciplines for attaining liberation from the material world and uniting the self with the Supreme Being. But nowadays, most Americans think of yoga as a series of postures and breathing exercises they practice to gain control of their bodies and minds.

Does the distinction really matter? Not to me. I’m a mom, a wife, a fashion model, an author, and a high school basketball coach. So it’s not so easy for me to slow down and do what I know is good for my body and mind. And yet yoga has helped me survive both mentally and physically. Perhaps I should explain.

Yoga has been a part of my life for more than 20 years, yet when someone asks if I “practice” yoga, I usually hesitate. Why? Because I can’t bend like a pretzel, nor do I roll out my mat every day. In fact, when my agent asked if I wanted to model for a yoga clothing company, I hesitated. I could only imagine how perplexed they’d be when they saw that I lifted my right shoulder a bit too high in chair pose and didn’t quite square my hips in warrior I. Do I really practice yoga?

Yoga has been a part of my life for more than 20 years, yet when someone asks if I “practice” yoga, I usually hesitate.

I first tried yoga in college in my one and only acting class. I didn’t understand its relevance to the class or to my life. I played basketball, after all, and I loved intense physical exercise. I couldn’t comprehend the importance of slowly stretching my body, not to mention quelling my mind. Sun salu-what? I struggled through every pose except those requiring balance and strength; and when the class ended, I easily said good-bye to yoga.

And then on November 20, 1991, my life changed forever. Just days before my wedding, I was hit by a train. I shattered my right arm and my right femur. My heart broke when I awoke in the hospital and learned that my fiancé had been killed in the accident.

Yoga didn’t help me recover right away. But as I began to get stronger physically and move forward with my life—learning to survive each day without Mark—yoga slowly found its way back to me. Months after the accident, when I was able to walk again, I stepped into a yoga class. I knew it would be nearly impossible to get into most of the poses; still I felt compelled to try. Deep in my heart I must have known that working toward balancing my body would be good for me, and might even help me do the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else—play basketball again.

With the entire right side of my body wracked with injuries, I needed an abundance of blankets and props to shift myself in and out of awkward positions. I focused on my breath, and somehow that focus helped me find peace in a time of stress and heartache. Day by day, pose by pose, my yoga got better, my game got better, and I got better.

I am no yogi, but I am happy. And in the end, isn’t that what really matters?

Now, more than 20 years later, I wish I could say I wake up every morning at 5 and practice an hour of yoga and meditation before I start my day. But I don’t. I try to make yoga class once a week (emphasis on try). I do manage 10 to 15 minutes of yoga after my workout at the Y. With the help of a good warm-up and a yoga-infused stretching routine, I still play basketball competitively in women’s leagues around Seattle—not bad for a 45-year-old. My body may be a bit lopsided, and I may not have attained liberation from the material world, or union of the self with the Supreme Being, but yoga keeps me playing basketball and goofing around with my husband and kids, and it allows me a few moments of quiet and peace in this fun and crazy life. I am no yogi, but I am happy. And in the end, isn’t that what really matters?  

Photo credit: Wendy Cope, greybeard39, Vox Efx, Nelson L., Georgie Pauwels.

Sonya Elliott
Sonya Elliott is the author of Back on the Court: A Young Woman’s Triumphant Return to Life, Love & Basketball. Visit her at sonyaelliott.com.

Yoga Anywhere, Anytime. JOIN FREE FOR A MONTH