10 Things I Learned on my Yoga Mat

It’s no secret that I am a tried and true yoga aficionado. Ever since I first stepped my bare toes on my first hot pink, flowered mat, I fell in love with the practice. See, I was never an athletic person. Everyone who went to high school with me can tell you that when it was time to run around the school during P.E., I was always one of the girls that took the shortcut through the parking lot. Or just walked it. Yoga was the first time I was actually doing some sort of physically challenging thing that I didn’t absolutely hate.

But losing weight or getting in shape were never the reasons I started it or kept at it.  Another thing those close to me will tell you is that I have some terrible eating habits (that I am actively trying to change. Wait, are those waffle fries?), but my health was never an issue. No, yoga became a mainstay in my life because of what it did to me mentally. These past two years, I threw myself into the yogi game headfirst. I tried to practice as much as I could. And as I progressed, I found that the things I learned while I practiced my asanas could be applied off my mat too.

Here, I share those that have stuck with me after the om chanting is done and the sweat has been wiped clean off your Manduka.

1.   Take risks: Don’t let the fear of falling stop you.

This was a tough one for me to learn at the beginning. When I first started to get more serious about my practice, I hesitated on pushing myself very far. I took the common yoga saying of “listen to your body” a little too far, and mostly so I could feel safe. I was always too scared to try the complicated arm balance or the headstand. I always told myself “better safe than sorry.” And although this saved me from maybe a sore back every now and then, it didn’t let me progress. This directly ties in to how we should approach life. Taking risks is the only way we will ever be able to figure out if we can actually do something. You will most likely fall (or fail), but once what you were scared of happening happens, it magically becomes LESS scary. So you are more likely to try again. And again. AND AGAIN if you need to. Don’t let failure be the reason why your life stays comfortable. You never know when that risk will end up in a success, so reach towards it and don’t let fear dictate your behaviors. Also, just like there’s a nice padded mat to catch me when I do flip over and out of forearm stand, life has cushions like family and friends to be there to catch you when failure knocks you one.

2.   Be dedicated or else you won’t move forward.

We must be persistent once we know what we want. My dream of dreams is to come into handstand unassisted. I watch the Instagram yogis in awe (and with slight jealousy) as they so very nonchalantly come up into their magical upside-downness. So I practice. Before and after class (and during, if my teacher makes a tiny bit of space for inversions), at home when I can’t sleep, or when I’ve had a beer and I’m feeling especially silly and limber. Even though I am nowhere near to making this happen without a wall behind me, I have a few precious seconds of buoyancy. This brief, fleeting moment of holding myself upside-down feels magical, and that one second of suspension reminds me that all this work will someday be worth it. But I will never get there unless I keep practicing. I won’t wake up one day and be able to do it. We need to always visualize our goals – map out exactly what it is that we want. And then work towards it. Every day should be another opportunity to put a penny in the jar of our dreams. Whether it be some yoga pose or a new job position or improved health or just being a better version of yourself, make sure you make time everyday to add some change to that collection.Because one day you’ll be cashing that check and every moment of sweat and frustration will be worth it.

3.   It’s not a competition. It is about your own journey.

“Competitive” could have been my middle name, had my mom been able to see about eight years into the future and seen her tiny, but scrappy daughter trying to own her friends at foursquare. And freezetag. And Nintendo. Basically anything where someone at the end gets called the “winner.” Yoga has taught me again and again that it isn’t about who is best in class. I always catch myself looking around, seeing if I’m “better” that the next person. And then I catch myself feeling horrible for doing that. Because I remember that where I am right now is exactly where I need to be. I have had to drill this lesson into my head. It isn’t about whom you beat or how many people are “worse” than you – it’s about your own journey. At the end of the day, if the girl next to me is doing child’s pose while I’m busting out Scorpion, it doesn’t make a damn difference in my own personal practice. Or in hers. Same goes with life. We are programmed to think life is a big rat race, and to have the mentality that if you didn’t win, what you did didn’t matter. But sadly there’s no trophy handed out before you die. All that you will have is either the reassurance or regret that you did or did not do your own personal best. That you did or did not live by what personally made you happy. That you didn’t do it for the accolades or to be the best. You did it for YOU. So stop comparing yourself to the next guy (a constant mantra/reminder I have to tell myself) and focus on YOUR process.

4.   Oftentimes, it’s not about your physical strength. It’s about your mental strength.

We’ve all had good and bad days. Days where we can just fly through, killing it at work, socially, whatever. Then there are days where we just want to stay under the covers and have a gigantic pity party for ourselves. The thing that remains constant in most of these scenarios is that our body has not changed. If on Monday you wake up, feeling ready to rule the damn world, and walk into class or your office with confidence and energy and positivity, you most likely WILL rule the damn world (your world). But if say come Friday, you’ve dealt with your significant other being a jerk, your boss making you work long hours, and your parents ragging on you for the third time today, then you probably aren’t going to walk into the day feeling like you can rule anything. You most likely will struggle to make it to the end of the day without choking someone or wanting to hide under your desk. But notice that you physically haven’t changed. You just FEEL heavier. This is where mental strength comes into play and can save your day. In yoga, we usually set an intention before class. For me, it’s usually one word that I want to focus on realizing while I practice. Things like “strength” or “dedication” or even “letting go.” When I walk onto my mat feeling the weight of negativity, my mental strength has to come in and take over to pull me through. And if I believe hard enough that I CAN do it, I usually DO.  Same goes with life. You still have the strength and power you did yesterday. Today might just feel heavier than yesterday did. But the strength still exists. So tap into the cheerleader in you that knows this. And have him or her lift you up and help you through the bad day.

5.   Make time for silence. And for yourself.

Pretty self-explanatory, no? At the end of yoga, we have savasana, or corpse pose. This basically means we get to have about 5 to 10 minutes of sweaty, lovely silence all to ourselves. The room gets dark and quiet, you close your eyes, and for maybe the first time all day (or all month!) you get some real, tried and true peace. But silence can be scary. It can be emotional. It can also be a much-needed respite for our souls. It brings out something different for everyone. But truth is, no matter how much you dislike it, you need it. We all need to shut down for a second (or hopefully more). In an age of constant glaring screens, dinging text messages, pinging G-chats, and incoming emails, our brain craves silence and peace. So when the red flags of overstimulation start waving, and you can sense you’re going on overload, find your own version of savasana and dis.con.nect.

6.   Take a break from thinking about anything that isn’t the present.

Our thoughts are racing constantly. There is never a moment where they stop telling us what to do or what we should do or what we should’ve done or shit, did I leave my flat iron on? We have to make an active and conscious decision to STOP. Yoga does this in that you are sometimes so wrapped up in a pose (literally sometimes, ha. Yogi humor, y’all) that you cannot think of ANYTHING else but keeping your arm on the ground and your other leg straight and your chest forward. This focus is rare outside of the mat for me. There are few situations that make my brain focus on the here and now. So we kind of have to train ourselves. Make an effort to focus and be mindful of the things that are presently happening. And let go of the ruminating thoughts. Tomorrow isn’t here yet and yesterday has already happened. So focus on right now and give your thoughts a lunch break. How do you feel right now? Like RIGHT NOW? Happy? Sad? Indifferent? Neutral? Hungry? Did you even realize you felt this way before I asked you? How does your body feel right now? Cramped? Relaxed? Sore from your last attempt at Crow pose? See, that there is focusing on the present. It’s a little check-in with yourself.

“Hi, Self. How are you doing right now? Not so good huh? I’m sorry I’ve been neglecting you. There have been 1,675 distractions circling me all day. Let me give you some attention.”

No, you’re not weird for having a me-to-me conversation (I mean, if you do it out loud, I can’t guarantee your cube-mate won’t look at you weird). And yes, you’ll feel better for having done it.

 7.   Cohesion, and remembering we’re all in this together.

Living in an individualistic society, we often lose our sense of unity. We forget that we really all are in it together. That there are people out there who know exactly the pain you are going through now. Or the joy. For me, nothing reminds me more of this than when I chant an Om with my yogi-mates. It may seem cheesy sometimes, especially when the lady next to you sounds like she swallowed a didgeridoo. But listening to a bunch of cohesive voices together makes me feel like there are little strings connecting us all. That I am never truly alone. We need to build on this idea that we are all a community of humans. Be a compassionate friend and a good listener. Help those around you who need it. It can be easy to ignore the plight of those who don’t have what we have. They are usually in another country, or at the very least, in a neighborhood way south of ours. It is easy to not want to bother with what you don’t choose to see. But you are forgetting the extreme power one human being has to change another one’s life. It doesn’t have to be money. It can be lending a shoulder when someone is in pain or offering to buy a person lunch just to brighten their day. It can be a flower given to a child or a hot coffee offered to the man sitting on the corner of the intersection. Remember that without each other, we are alone and the world is dark. Friendships and connections and reaching towards each other is what keeps our lives warm and lit up.

 8.   Breathe into pain. You’re stronger than you think.

When life hits you, and I mean REALLY hits you, we want an easy out. We want to say, “I am not strong enough for this. There is no way I can see a silver lining. I’m never making it out in one piece.” We want to resign to being sad or depressed or angry or resentful because we feel we CANNOT be anything other than that. It’s too hard to be happy — too difficult to look on the bright side. Guess what? Yeah, it is. When life has knocked you down, and stepped on your head, and given you a good kick in the ribs while she’s at it, being positive can seem like the hardest and most ridiculous thing in the world. But if there is still breath in your lungs and strength in your heart,there’s a chance. You are stronger than you think. You just have to want to fight for it.You have to believe you can make it through. Whether it be holding the last few seconds in plank pose or making it through a devastating loss, the same holds true. Let yourself feel the pain, but also breathe into it, accept it, then believe that your body can take way more than your mind says it can. Because almost always, you will prove to yourself that it will.

 9.   Laugh at yourself. And forgive yourself.

I’ve fallen out of poses many a time in front of my classmates. I’ve had really embarrassing ones too. Ones that hurt like crazy and almost caused me to roundhouse kick my neighbor. But the key lies in being able to laugh it off. We ALL fall. In yoga and in life. We make dumb mistakes, we hurt people, we make bad decisions, and we have accidents. All of this is completely and utterly human. And we have to be able to find the humor in our shortcomings. Instead of beating yourself up about it, know it won’t be the first or last time you mess up. So be forgiving. Chalk it up to being a life lesson and carry it with you next time you are confronted with the same situation.

10.   The journey never ends.

Yoga reminds me that, no matter where you are, your journey hasn’t ended. No matter how good you get at the poses, there will always be something else to work on. There will always be another step up. Same goes off the mat: you’re never going to get to a point in your life where you are completely and totally satisfied with yourself. And thank goodness for that. Our journey ends when we take our last breath. Until then, remind yourself to live every day striving for happiness and a more fulfilling life. The work will always be there, but find joy in it. Life isn’t about slaving away miserably for that cushy retirement in the Bahamas when you’re 80. What about right now? What about life before then? Work to make TODAY the best day you can. That way, when you are eventually lying in your hammock underneath a palm tree, wrinkled and old and pretty damn happy, you can look back and be grateful you enjoyed every single step to get there.

Namaste, y’all.