Sure, one reason to love yoga is that it gives you a strong, bendy body that won’t quit. But the benefits of this ancient practice don’t stop there. With health benefits ranging from strength, flexibility, and endurance to better organ function, there’s no shortage of reasons to make yoga part of your fitness routine. But anyone who has delved deeper into the mental and spiritual areas of a yoga practice, like its intersection with meditation, will tell you how much it can improve everything from your self-image to your focus at work to your relationships with your loved ones as it supports you in practicing patience and empathy. So, while a physical practice can definitely give you the muscles and lean look you’re after, yoga is oh-so-much more than just a workout. In the Western world, when we talk about yoga, we’re usually referring to the physical part, as in a room full of spandex-clad women stretching, bending, and sweating their way through a set of salutations to the sun. But yoga as a form of exercise is simply one small part of the whole picture. Physical yoga, or asana, is just one of the “eight limbs” of yoga, so if you only focus on getting through the postures during a class, then you’re merely thinking about the tip of the iceberg. So, what’s below the surface? An entire way of thinking, being, and acting mindfully and intentionally that can change your world for the better. Here’s how to take your yoga practice off the mat and invite it to improve every aspect of your life.
Sutras for the Win
Sutra means thread of knowledge, and yoga sutras are essentially the philosophical threads that support a comprehensive yoga practice. Basically, they’re 196 little nuggets of wisdom or thoughts on how to live your life mindfully, intentionally, and with compassion—for yourself and others. The sutras contain lots of advice about ditching your attachment to things that are weighing you down, nixing self-judgement, and learning self-empathy instead. Even though they were first written down thousands of years ago, they’re surprisingly relevant today.
In translation, sutra 1.22 says, “There is further distinction on account of the mild, moderate, or intense means employed.”
Apply it to your life:
Without its context, this sutra might sound opaque, but here’s a modern take on it: The demands of life ebb and flow. Give yourself the leeway to do and give what you can, when you can. You may have fallen off the exercise bandwagon when you were pregnant, for instance, or are just starting a new job and having trouble getting back to your self-care routine. Instead of feeling bad about it, remember life moves at different speeds, and you can make room for that. To everything there is a season, right?
In translation, sutra 2.16 says, “The grief which has not yet come may be avoided.”
Apply it to your life:
The anxieties of modern life get to us all at times. Sutra 2.16 is not a fable about planning ahead—it’s actually a reminder to the keep worry about the potential pain of what could go wrong from spoiling your present, especially if you’re worrying about things you can’t prevent or that might not happen. Even if something does go awry, worrying about it now will only cause you to suffer twice. Instead, appreciate the state of things in the now. Worry is only a valuable emotion when it helps you act to change things for the better. The next time you’re trapped in an anxious thought loop, consider whether there’s anything good that can come from your worry. If yes, refer back to sutra 1.22 and dedicate the necessary intensity to enacting the positive change. If not? Remind yourself it’s okay to let that stress go.
“Let it go” is advice that’s easier said than done. Take a tip from your yoga teacher and let it all out—through your breath. Pranayama, or breathing exercises, are easy to take off the mat and do throughout the day any time you need a little centering or focus. Alternate nostril breathing, for instance, is taught to yoga beginners all over the world because it’s an easy and accessible technique for balancing the body and mind and intentionally directing your energy. Here’s a five-minute practice from one of my favorite international yoga teachers, Esther Ekhart.
Strengthening Your Mental-Health Muscles
Yoga is one of the best natural tools we have to combat anxiety and depression. In fact, some studies show that frequent yoga and meditation can be just as effective as prescription drugs (although yoga shouldn’t flat out replace a visit to your mental healthcare provider). With all the physical, spiritual, and mental benefits of a regular yoga practice, you may be inspired to unfurl your mat right away! And remember, with just a bit of intention and practice, the benefits of yoga will last long after you say namaste.