It’s a cliché, but we are all on our own journey in life. The same is true for one’s yoga journey. Yoga today can mean many different things to different people. For some it is a deeply spiritual practice, a way of life. For others, it’s just a form of exercise. And there are many other variations in between.
I am firmly of the “to each, their own” philosophy. What is right for you may not be right for me, and vice versa. What resonates with you will be heavily influenced by your cultural upbringing, your beliefs, your personality and your life circumstances. And that’s before we talk about the influence of your physiological make-up on your asana practice, the physical poses.
From my own experience, not only is everybody’s yoga practice unique, what is right for you is likely to evolve over time based on your needs, life stage, spiritual growth and other circumstances. I began my first yoga course in my late twenties as a way of calming my over-active mind. Having never been a sporty person, it was not about getting fit or strong. I had been in a tumultuous relationship that was having a big impact on my wellbeing, a fact I can only really appreciate with hindsight. I have a vivid memory of sobbing my way through a yoga class, completely bewildered at how a physical practice could unleash emotions I was barely aware of, let alone allowing myself to feel. I recall the way the teacher skillfully and respectfully just let me be, creating a safe space for those emotions to flow.
At 30 I was living overseas and opening my eyes to the big wide world. Surrounded by natural beauty, this was a time when I further developed an already strong affinity with nature. This was the beginning of a realization that we are all connected, all part of the one universe, and that actions I take in one part of the world can affect those in another. This spiritual concept of oneness that we learn about through yoga had been quite a foreign concept for a self-absorbed agnostic twenty-something, but one that was having increasing resonance with me. One of the most memorable times of practicing yoga was outside in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, doing sun salutations under a blazing hot sun. My face was turned towards mountains that spoke to my soul in a language that only Mother Nature can make me understand.
Then in my 30s, the physical aspects of a yoga practice started to become my focus. Yoga made me feel fit, strong and healthy, and better still, those benefits were obtained in a non-competitive environment. It was not just lack of natural talent that had made me shy away from “sporty” pursuits, I always hated the competitive environment of team based sports or even the gym vibe. In yoga we learn that there is no value in comparing yourself to the person next to you, it is not a competition. (Although I have not mastered this ability to not compare and judge my inability to do a handstand harshly – but I’m working on it).
In my late 30s as yoga was becoming an increasingly important part of my life, I decided to undertake my first yoga teacher training. Here the more philosophical components of yoga really challenged me. In our main text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, physical asanas (postures) barely rate a mention. We delved deep into the workings of the mind, made acquaintance with our higher selves, and in my case, uncovered limiting self-beliefs that I hadn’t even been aware of. Needless to say it was intense personal development and a life-changing experience.
By the end of my training my physical practice was the strongest it had ever been and I felt on top of the world. Twenty-three days after completing my exam, I was diagnosed with a serious illness. Whilst nothing can ever prepare you for a diagnosis like that, I felt like my yoga training had indeed just prepared me for one of the toughest physical, emotional and mental battles of my life.
Of course, during treatment, my strong power flow practice went out the window. It was at this time that I found yin, a much quieter and more meditative practice. Whilst my ego railed against not being allowed to do chaturanga dandasana (low plank), I was forced to really face some of the yoga concepts I had not been practicing, such as self-care and compassion, listening to my body, and the epiphany that I didn’t always have to strive, in yoga or in life.
Now that I am in my 40s I am learning that my body, my spirit and my mind need a different practice. These days it’s more about using yoga and meditation to gain mental clarity, to nourish and nurture the body and even my heart. To keep the joints from stiffening up in the cold and the muscles released after bushwalking, carting firewood or bending over the vegetable beds. And it’s about helping my students to figure out their own yoga journey.