What yoga taught me
"What impact does yoga have in your daily life ? Do you feel more awake ? In better shape ? Lighter ? I practiced a bit, I quite liked it, maybe I should practice again at home."
A friend of mine asked me this question on Twitter lately. I tried to answer it in 280 characters (I'm joking, I didn't even try: my answer was 5 tweets long). I thought that an article would certainly be a more appropriate format.
How did I get there?
As far as I remember, I've always had some sort of physical activity. I remember in high school: I was part of every single sports clubs: badminton, volley-ball, athleticism... Then at 15 years old I miserably fell from a horse named Igor and I torn my anterior cruciate ligament. It was the end of my career in sport, or at least the beginning of a 10 year break. I never had surgery - at 15 I hadn't finished growing up and I had to wait. At 18 years old I left my parents home to study and after that everything went really fast. In Paris, I spent more time in bars than at the gym. Therefore, I didn't really see the point of getting surgery given what that meant in terms of recovery.
At 26, for many reasons I realised that I had to find some balance between my social life and my well-being. I've an addictive and excessive personality and I don't do things by halves. I also like partying a lot. As you can imagine, the first half of my twenties was really messy and not balanced at all! It was about time for me to listen to myself and learn to say no and stop. To take care of myself and put myself first.
This is when I started running. At first it was really, REALLY difficult. It only took 15 minutes for me to get bright red and out of breath. But I did not give up and after a few weeks, 15 minutes became 18, then 20 and 30, until 45 minutes. There's nothing exceptional in this but knowing how much I've always hated running, going from nothing to 30/45 minutes twice a week was quite an achievement for me.
When I turned 28 I left Paris for London. Moving in a new city, a new country, I had to find my marks and set up a new routine. One of my former colleagues took me to Frame - a classes only type of gym whose moto is "if you've been bad we'll make you feel great". They offer various types of classes, all quite intense, where having fun is more important than doing everything perfectly.
Great. But my ligament was still torn - those don't grow on their own, right. So after 6 months of going to Frame every single day, my body let me know that I wasn't really listening to it. I was only doing cardio/fitness classes where I was jumping around for an hour or so. Several times I couldn't walk for a few days after the class.
At this time I had a very bad opinion of yoga. You could have heard me saying "Yoga? It's for lazy people. Some hippie shit for people who believe that making knots with your limbs for hours will make them feel better somehow."
Anyhow, the pain in my knee forced me to leave my ego at the door and join the crowd of yogis. This is certainly the first lesson yoga taught me.
The first time I met yoga
I hated it. Really. I felt like I had wasted my time. I got bored and I really didn't get the point. Some postures were so "simple" that I didn't get what their goal was. After all, the point is to succeed, right? If I can do it after only one attempt, then I have won the game, isn't it? What's the point?
Some other postures - such as all the postures with straight legs - were simply not accessible to me. Which made me really mad. I remember I thought that I was simply unable to make these shapes. I was just not flexible and that's it. My mum has very tight hamstrings too. It must be genetics: I'll never be able to touch my feet in a forward fold.
I left my very first yoga class certain that I would never come back. But my knee kind of disagreed. I went back a few weeks later, but this time I picked a dynamic class. One of some described as "not accessible to beginners, need a few months of practice". And this is when I understood.
I understood that all those incredible postures are accessible to anyone provided that you practice seriously and regularly. I understood that you need patience and to listen to your body. Because by listening to your body, you understand how it works, and by understanding how it works you can work with it. This is a sequence of controlling and letting go. Controlling movement and letting go in the posture.
This is so difficult that it requires a lot of focus. You can't let your mind wander; you have to empty it, keep your mind still in order to keep your body still too. At the end of the class not only do you feel physically exhausted, you also feel completely relaxed because you were force to leave all your problems at the door, in order to practice.
Yoga on the mat: the physical practice
My job is to break down complex systems into small and simple tasks. I applied the same methodology to my yoga practice. During my first class, there was that amazing girl who was able to perform all the postures so gracefully. At the end of the class I asked her how long she'd been practicing yoga for and she answered 2 years. This gave me some timescale (even though now I realise that it doesn't really matter).
One of the postures she could do was a forearm stand - or pincha mayurasana. Obviously, as soon as I discovered this posture it became my new challenge. I tried in vain to get into the posture too fast by literally jumping into it... and falling miserably!
When I had enough of falling, I decided to observe and break down the posture. My first mistake was to throw myself into it. People who could do it didn't seem to need strength to get into the posture. Everything was simple and controlled. By observing, I understood that in order not to need to kick, I needed to be flexible enough to align my body in the right position first. I wasn't flexible enough. My elbows and shoulder were aligned, but holding this posture was really difficult for me - I didn't have enough strength in my shoulders. As for my hips: they were not aligned with my shoulders because my hamstrings didn't allow me to push them up there.
So this is what I worked on for 2 years.
My strength - in my shoulders. By doing chaturangas and by holding dolphin pose.
My flexibility - in my hamstrings, by working on my forward folds.
Knowing my own body - to understand how to unlock postures.
How does this translate in my daily life?
More strength - especially in my arms. My body is more balanced - yoga is a very complete practice. More stamina as well. A better overall posture and therefore no more back pain (I'm quite lucky not to really suffer from back pain. I tended to feel a pain on one side only in my lower back when I stood still for a few hours. Doesn't happen anymore.). More flexibility. I always thought that unless you're professional gymnast, being flexible doesn't really matter. But being able to stretch and create space in your own body is certainly one of the most satisfying and calming sensation ever.
All of this made me understand my body better and know what it's capable of. Knowing what your body is capable of allows you to be more confident and trust it more. In some extreme sports such as skiing, knowing that your body is able to catch you if you lose balance or fold without breaking, changes the way you feel and makes the whole experience smoother. Also, having some physical activity on a regular basis improves your overall fitness.
Yoga off the mat: the mental practice
I alluded to it in the previous paragraph - the first lesson yoga taught me was to leave my ego at the door. I'm very competitive and perfectionist, so I had a lot to learn from an individual practice where you don't get to compare yourself to others, where there's no competition and where practice and state of mind - the journey - are more important than results.
The practice being so difficult, it requires to empty your mind in order to be able to control your movements. It's impossible to let your mind wander and at the same time to hope that you'll be able to control your movements. And obviously, if you can focus and prevent any random thoughts to come to your mind for an hour, this will have a positive impact on your stress level.
The key of the practice is breathing. Every inhale you take allows you to stretch and create space. Each exhale takes you further and deeper into the posture. When you understand the importance and the role of breathing, you become able to use it like a tool in every single aspect of your life, when it's important to stay calm, focused and in control.
This is also a very benevolent practice; I mentioned earlier that yoga is an individual practice where you don't get to compare yourself to others. Yoga isn't a sport. Indeed you're encouraged to push yourself beyond what you believe is your body's limits, but you're also encouraged to listen to your body. We aren't like machines; our emotions, feelings, fatigue... lots of things have an impact on our body and it's totally normal not to be able to do the exact same things every single day.
You learn to be grateful and to thank your body for what it allows your to do, rather than hating it because it doesn't look like the way you want it to. Once more, yoga invites us to leave our ego aside. The idea being to apply this principle in every situation. Most frustrating situations are provoked by our ego. That's our ego which wants things to happen in a specific manner or which wants people to react in a certain way. Yoga teaches us to get rid of those expectations - to let go - because it doesn't belong to us, we can't control these.
How does this translate in my daily life?
I'm still working on it!
Yoga off the mat is certainly the most difficult part. Letting go of things, especially when we don't have any control over it is the hardest thing for me. However anxiety, fear, this prevents us from moving forward. Having expectations prevents us from enjoying the moment and takes us away from this feeling of gratitude which is one of the most beautiful feeling ever.