A non-yogi friend, which is important. And he asked me, in all curiosity (as opposed to challenging argumentativeness), what the point of my [Ashtanga] yoga practice was, aside from the obvious fitness-y physical benefits.
It was a really good question and surprisingly difficult to answer.
I hadn't realized until that moment that I rarely have conversations like these with people who are not already into yoga, have tried yoga, are curious about yoga, or who are seeking me out solely in order to challenge me on my pro-yoga-ness.
I had no idea what to say. I mean, there’s a common vocabulary amongst those of us who are practitioners, certainly. Even those of us who are part-time yogis, who pick it up and put it down as the mood and need strikes us (which is totally fine; it’s what yoga is there for, after all—your needs, your practice). But for someone in whose life yoga doesn't play a part? I realized I didn't know anyone like that anymore. It was a wake-up call.
I’ll get to my answer to the question in a moment, but more so than the realization that I couldn't easily answer that question in any way that wouldn't sound whacko to a non-practitioner, I realized that it is exactly this problem, this vocabulary, this comprehension gap, that keeps newcomers intimidated by the practice.
I mean, yoga seems like a heavy subject. Heck, it’s a heavy word. That’s not because it’s a practice imbued with thousands of years of history. I mean, it is a practice imbued with thousands of years of history, but all that stuff, honestly, is optional knowledge for a yoga practitioner, until (and unless) they bring it into their practice by choice.
But it’s not its history, its many limbs, or even all that beautiful (but intimidating) Sanskrit floating around. Yoga is a heavy subject because we make it such a heavy subject. All by ourselves. And this isn't at all surprising. Yoga changes lives. Seriously. And how can something that powerful be boiled down to a few mundane words? Well, it can’t. Not really and certainly not easily.
Those of us who have experienced this life changing power know exactly what I’m talking about. And it’s exactly that experience that makes us want to share yoga with others; it’s why so many of us feel called to become teachers. It’s also why so many of us feel as though we’ll be able to draw beginners to our classes, but then frustrate ourselves with our inability to express the benefits of yoga—even coherently enough to get someone to step into the studio just once. Just once! Because we know that’s all it will take, right?
But passion is universal. Even before you felt that way about your yoga practice, you felt similarly moved by something else—art, or maybe a book. A film. A drawing you did in third grade that expressed your day so perfectly that you couldn't wait to share it with your parent(s). That’s the key, I think, to sharing the benefits of yoga. To start in the universal and move into the specific.
Which brings me back to my conversation with my friend. In his own right, he’s an artist and serious athlete. When I thought about it in those terms, the language came more easily. I talked about meeting yourself, at your edge, and knowing that you could back away (which would be fine) or continue on, because we know that the real work begins when you want to exit the pose.
But in that moment of decision, you’re faced with your darkest self; eventually, if you practice long enough, you’re faced with the true reflection of yourself—your faults, your so-called mistakes, your doubts, fears—everything you sweep under the metaphorical rug from day to day and keep walking over or, eventually, that you throw back in order to clean all that sh*t up.
Lots of practices will bring you to this point; I've known marathon runners and other extreme-sports enthusiasts who have talked about that same long, dark night of the soul. This is what yoga does for you. Sooner or later. “Practice and all is coming,” Sri K Pattabhi Jois said.
And it wasn't until I was faced with that mirror and decided, really, to look at my reflection (still the scariest thing I've ever done), accept it (scratch that; accepting it was the scariest thing I've ever done and I don’t even think that process is complete yet), take ownership of all the icky stuff (as well as the joyous stuff) in my life, that I realized what Jois meant.
You can’t be happy, truly and effortlessly happy, until you accept it all and take responsibility for it—the dark and the light. We've done that to and for ourselves. And this is what yoga does for you. This is what I tried to explain, how I tried to answer that question.
I mean, yeah, I can do a handstand. I can do some bad-ass arm balances; I've worked long and hard on getting to that point in my practice. But I only return to the mat because I am unafraid. Unafraid of what I’ll find there when I still my mind and go within. Unafraid of the darkness, unafraid of pushing myself beyond my very conservative comfort zone (okay…I’m not in any way completely unafraid of that yet), and unafraid to do the work, day in and day out.
Having a strong body (which yoga will give you, no matter what) helps. Feeling that strength, drawing comfort from that strength, is grounding and reassuring. But without a strong mind? Meaningless and, dare I say, pointless. A body is a body—it ages, it changes, it can be broken. But when you bring the heart and mind into the picture? That is true strength.