Why Yoga?

“We’re not trying to get anywhere – we’re just trying to be where we’re at.”  – Bryan Kest


"prayer balancing twist" by Celia Huphries www.celiahumphries.com

I began on the path of yoga around age 15 when my tennis coach introduced me to Bryan Kest’s Power Yoga Series (on VHS at the time).  I remember trying it for the first time and barely getting half way through it – this was some hard stretching!  I did Power 2 as a supplemental workout off and on for several years before giving it up largely (along with music) when I started working full-time in finance.  In the lead-up to the quarter-life crisis that culminated in my quitting that lucrative career, in addition to revisiting musical roots, I started exploring yoga again.  After first incorporating it into my broader workout regimen, yoga is now my sole exercise, and a daily practice forms the foundation for my other life activities.

Why Yoga

A personality match: Like other forms of exercise – sports, lifting weights, running, etc. – yoga has physical and spiritual qualities that draw specific types of people.  In the physical realm, yoga is “one man, one mat”, so to speak – though there are opportunities to socialize before and after a group practice, most of the exercise is done in silent introspection – it thus draws introverted types.  Yoga involves twisting oneself into awkward and often painful positions – this aspect draws masochistic types.  Yoga is a repetitive exercise that releases endorphins through pain and exertion – this draws people who are prone to addiction.

The spiritual aims of yoga include: finding one’s self, connecting with nature, seeking different planes of consciousness.  These draw people generally termed “hippies”.  Though I use the terms pejoratively, I am happy to include myself in this group of introverted addiction-prone masochist hippies!

Strength, balance, flexibility, and equanimity: Bryan Kest perfectly sums up the practical benefits of a disciplined yoga practice with these four words.  These are present to a certain extent in all exercises, but yoga explores the last perhaps more than any other activity.  Equanimity means, in the words of Kest, “calmness in an uncomfortable situation”.  The goal of every pose in yoga is to cultivate this calmness.  We maneuver our bodies into uncomfortable positions, but instead of becoming fearful or reacting to the pain, we breathe deep, soften the face, and try to keep a calm mind.  Over the course of the practice, this repetition in various postures releases tension across the body and mind.

The breath is the key: Deep nose breathing is the thread running throughout the entire practice, and is yoga’s true gift in comparison to other exercises.  When else in your day can you devote yourself to deep breathing?  And what could be more important than breath?  In the words of the Ashtanga tradition, “Breath is life”.  Take food away and you can live for weeks.  Take water or sleep, and you can live for days.  But take breath and you have just minutes.  It seems right that we should honor the importance of breath in our life, and yoga provides one of the best avenues to do this.

A sustainable practice: Ever see a bunch of old guys chasing a football around the pitch?  It happens, but it isn’t usually pretty.  Ball sports, with their sharp movements and/or physical contact with other players, are a recipe for chronic and acute injuries.  I gave up ball sports after a severe ankle sprain recently took me out of commission for a few months.  I went through ACL reconstruction in college but youth allowed me to recover and play tennis again.  As age and its attendant awareness of mortality have dawned on me, I now accept that my sporting days are over – I simply don’t have the time or resources to heal another major injury.  Though it befuddles everyone who knows how serious I once was about tennis, it is OK with me.  I started yoga through tennis, and yoga is now my connection to that time in the past.  Yoga also happens to be a very well-rounded exercise – it cultivates strength to handle the weight of the body, releases toxins through sweat, enhances flexibility, and raises the heart rate.  Importantly, it does this in a calm and controlled way, making it less unpredictable than competitive sports.  Yoga certainly has its dangers – the poses are difficult and place strain on the joints.  The knees, shoulders, and lower back are especially vulnerable.  But as long as you “listen to your body” and are patient with progressing to more difficult postures, this should be a practice you can engage in through your 90s and beyond.

Roots: a theme running through my recent decision to change directions in life is exploring the skills I first started at a young age.  The rationale is partly practical – these are the skills I have put in the most hours developing – so in the context of the 10,000 hour rule of mastery, I am closest to reaching a high level in these areas (music and yoga).  But as I age and hopefully mature, I am letting go of the ambition in this reasoning.  It just feels good to revisit what I loved in younger, simpler times.  Like returning home after a long absence, these daily acts bring familiarity and stability in a chaotic world.  Perhaps we could all benefit by looking back, contemplating what we connected with during the freest time of our lives, and bringing that part of our life back in the present?