How, exactly, can yoga change my life?

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Many of us come to yoga seeking change.

We want our bodies to feel different—more flexible, more open, we want less pain.

We want less stress, we want a connection to spirit, we want a quiet mind.

We want to experience peace and calm and somebody told us that yoga was good for all of that.

But what is it about yoga that gets us there? How does practicing yoga help us to become different, changed people?

Yoga can help us to do things differently than we have done them before which means we will have different experiences. Different experiences is what helps us to change. This week, I participated in a workshop about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras with Chase Bossart (he’s so wonderful!!!) and this simple reflection on the nature of change is one of the things that has really stayed with me. If we keep doing the same ole thing, nothing changes. We do something different, and things are different. We change. A daily yoga practice gives us the opportunity to have those different experiences, repeat them and get them to stick. Every time I dive into those sutras, I am continually amazed that this wise ancient Indian man, Patañjali, knew so much about how I work and how people seem to tick way over here in 2013.

Every day, throughout life we have a whole bunch of experiences. And if we have the same experience over and over again, that experience gets easier and can become a pattern. Some repeat-experiences are good for us—like learning how to floss our teeth. We might start off having to make a conscious effort because flossing isn’t that pleasant at the very beginning—bleedy gums and all. But we stick with it, we do it day after day and we see that the gums stop bleeding, our teeth feel less fuzzy, our breath is sweeter and slowly we develop a good habit of it. We’ve changed! It only took me 35 years to develop this particular one.

Sometimes our experiences are useful in a moment, but they aren’t really patterns we intend to develop. Emotional “shutting down” comes to mind. Imagine that I’m in an argument (hard to imagine) and I’m just not going to win this one (harder to imagine, I know). It feels really bad and I don’t have the tools to deal with it in that moment so I have to check out. I try not to feel all of those icky feelings by not dealing with them. The body and mind is protecting me from too much discomfort the only way it seems to know how. Okay. Fine. This is reasonable.

But once that happens, and it “works,” it is so much easier for me to do it again. I had the experience of checking out in order to not feel so much angst or anxiety, so the next time I get into an argument that I’m not going to win or that feels bad, shutting down is already in my bag of tricks so here we go again…and again…and again. And then that way of dealing or coping or just not feeling pain becomes the way that I deal with situations like this. It wasn’t conscious. I didn’t even think about it, but there it is. These patterns of behavior, samskara-s, develop because I do something again and again over time.

So, what about that yoga? Is trikonasana, triangle pose, going to change my life? It sure might be part of the process. Asana is an important aspect of coming to know how the breath moves, noticing how we feel, and noticing how our bodies reacts to the things we ask them to do. Moving the body with breath-centered asana practice means we are moving in a way that isn’t habitual. It is conscious and attentive. So asana, the postures and physical practice, help us to practice non-habitual movement and breath with attention. Good asana can help us to feel integrated and whole. This is awesome, right? But guess what. It is a very small sliver of the wonderful yoga pie! Asana is an important part of our practice and it sets us up for the next part.

Pranayama, or breath practice is so cool. Lots of my students have commented about how much they enjoy it and they have this sort of surprised look on their faces, like they weren’t expecting that at all. I feel that way about it, too. We can work with the breath using patterns and techniques that let us open the system and extend the breath, and you know what that does? It helps us to move from an automatic, habitual breathing pattern to one that is conscious. We start to work with the breath in a conscious way and we can discover all sorts of things about ourselves, like how to feel into this body, even the subtle body of ours. This requires, attention and focus and a practice that we come to again and again. This gets us on the road to new patterns and life changes. It really does.

Meditation is next in the sequence of this practice. It requires some ability to focus and luckily we flexed our attention muscle with pranayama so we are ready to approach this off-the-charts amazing change material. In this tradition, meditation lets us have experiences that are consciously created (vs. the ones that are reactive and pattern instigated) and we practice this every day over time. It is through this daily practice that we get to have experiences, Chase Bossart calls them “consciously created experiences,” that slowly change us over time. It is really cool.

In order to see this change in your life, you can’t just think about it, or hope for it or wonder why you can’t change. Instead, you put all that aside, find yourself a teacher and do the yoga. With the guidance of a teacher you can have your very own practice to do every day. It’s doesn’t have to be sweaty and hard because it is primarily about the mind and patterns, after all. And it doesn’t have to be long—20 minutes is very reasonable. Doing the practice in a conscious way starts to effect change. I don’t know exactly why it works so well for our human systems, but I do know that practicing in this way has helped me to se the profound connections between my body, mind and spirit and ways to effect change over even the most elusive or seemingly permanent parts of my being. Thanks to my teachers of past and my present, I’ve seen this practice of yoga work in my life and in the lives of my students. And my life is better for it.