By Beth Lewis
As we enter August 2015, I am also approaching my fourth year of practicing yoga.
I have learned and grown so much over these last four years and as I approach this anniversary, I want to put into words how yoga has changed my life. Four years ago a friend told me that she had a Groupon for a local yoga class and that we should go.
My initial response was, no way. First of all, having struggled with my weight and my dislike of exercise all of my life, I had pretty much written off all forms of exercise that I had to pay for. I had tried to motivate myself by paying for YMCA memberships and other forms of exercise classes, but if the thought of wasting money didn’t motivate me, then nothing would.
Second of all, wasn’t yoga some kind of Buddhist or cult-like religion?
I really knew nothing about yoga, except for an exercise class that my children took once, where the teacher wanted to introduce yoga and the parents pushed back because they didn’t want their children to be introduced to something that might be mystical.
I think the one thing that helped me make my decision was purely out of proving that I could do something out of my comfort zone. One night at dinner I announced that I was thinking about taking a yoga class and my now ex-husband thought it was a ridiculous idea and shouldn’t I get in shape before I started? I think that follows long the same line that you should clean your house before you hire the cleaning company.
I will admit that I had great reservations about going and figured it would be another waste of money. But with the urging of my friend, I committed myself to one month.
I went to my first class with great trepidation. I had called the studio and asked if someone of my great unatheletism would be able to keep up in the beginner class. The lady I spoke to assured me that the beginner class would be great and that they had people in all different degrees of expertise.
The thing I remember most about my first class was how quiet it was. There was no music playing. Everyone took off their shoes before entering the studio, lined up their mats and sat down. There was a little chatter before the class started but after that there was no talking. That in and of itself made me nervous.
Of course, like anything we do that is new and we have no idea what we are doing, I felt like everyone was watching me. In all likelihood, no one probably paid any attention to me. When we got to the end of the class, the teacher said that we were going to have savasana or relaxation. This is a time when you lay quietly on your mat and focus on turning your mind off. That portion seemed to last forever and felt extremely weird to me but of course, now it is my favorite time.
Yoga has given me so many things that I’m not even sure where to start.
The most obvious place for me is to talk about the mental aspect of yoga. Almost from day one, yoga is the place where I go to quiet my mind. Do you ever experience your mind racing in circles or as I like to say, running on the hamster wheel? Often my mind is like that, but with yoga I have learned how to focus on my breath and quiet the chatter.
From the very beginning, I would tell people, “I can’t explain it, but yoga does something to my mind. I’m not sure what it is, but it is very peaceful and I like it.” Whenever I go to my yoga studio, the minute I walk in, I feel peace and serenity. At the beginning of every class, Yoga Bob instructs us to let go of our day and focus on our breath.
I attended the beginner class for a year and half. There we were taught that it’s not a competition with anyone or even with yourself. Be kind to your body.
It had taken me 44 years to get where I was, so did I think that it would change in a month or even a year? Slowly I learned to not be so hard on myself and to accept where I was. I think that is one of the reasons that I never continued with any exercise programs because just like many people, I wanted to see quick results. But as I began to expand my understanding of yoga, I started to feel the subtle changes, like peace of mind and being able to hold a pose slightly longer or my feet were hurting less.
I have to admit there were times when I considered quitting, if only for few minutes, but anytime I mentioned it to Bob, he continued to tell me that yoga is an inside job, not an outside job.
One of Bob’s favorite sayings is “The inner without the outer has no form and the outer without the inner has no meaning.”
Yoga is about balance; the attempt to bring all aspects of life, mind, body and spirt, into symmetry.
There are so many things in life that I can beat myself up about: how much money I make, whether or not I am a good enough mom, if I am going to get done everything that needs to get done, and the questions go on. Yoga has helped me slow down and focus on this moment. I only have this moment—right now.
Learning how to be still and quiet long enough to hear the truth within myself is one of the top benefits of yoga. It is a discipline that starts in the studio but expands to everyday life. Just like any habit, yoga has to be cultivated. I can’t just magically wish it so, but I also don’t have to drive myself to the point of unenjoyment.
One of the other amazing benefits of yoga is how my eating has changed. Again, it is an inside out job.
Many years ago, long before yoga, I decided that I would never go on a diet again. Diets drive me nuts and they would only have results for as long as I stayed on them. As I began to treat my body with respect and regularly do my yoga, I found that foods tasted differently. Without shaming myself, slowly I began to desire healthier food and fruits and vegetables tasted better. When I eat better, I have more energy and it has become a cycle. Sometimes now I wish that junk food tasted good, but now when I eat too much of the wrong foods for me, I don’t feel well and they don’t bring me the pleasure that they used to.
So can I say that I’ve lost an extraordinary amount of weight, that I’m able to run a marathon or even a mile? Can I say that I have no aches and pains and I’m able to keep up with my teenage children? No, I cannot say those things. This is what I can say: I am healthier in my mind, body and spirt than I was four years ago and although I’ve implemented a lot of other healthy practices in that time as well, I know that introducing yoga into my life has been one of the big pieces to the puzzle.
I write this essay as a thank you to my yoga guru, Yoga Bob and also my other yoga teachers, Cheryl and Ellen.
I thank them for creating the space and demonstrating the fundamental yogic principles that yoga is not an exercise program but a way to live a peace-full life.
Beth Anne lives in Pittsburgh, PA and is a divorced mother of three. Her journey from a cult like religion to a more peace-full life has taken her to places such as yoga, AlAnon and therapy with the help of lots of others who are interested in living a more non-judgemental lifestyle. Writing about her experiences is one of the ways that she hopes to give back to the world.
Editor: Dana Gornall