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A recent study by the Yoga Alliance stated that more than 19 million people have a regular yoga practice in the US. That is a lot of people, but at the same time, there are another 62 million American adults with a stated interest in yoga but do not currently practice.

Wow. The numbers are staggering.

We see yoga all around us. There are classes at local gyms, churches, community centers, and of course yoga studios. We find yoga clothes and equipment everywhere: from TJMaxx and the FiveBelow store, to Lululemon and REI. And haven’t most women adopted a pair of ‘yoga pants’ as their new favorite Saturday wardrobe? This is a multi-billion dollar industry.

What is holding everyone back?

“I’m not flexible.” I hear it almost every day. I think that one of the greatest myths about yoga is that it is something that requires us to be ‘bendy’. The media, especially social media, supports and even encourages that idea. We see images of young, lanky, flexible men and women twisting and bending themselves into perfection. One, 1 second shot is all it takes to project the ‘perfect’ looking pose, but that perfect pose is not what yoga is about, nor does it exist. It is certainly not what keeps me coming to my mat day after day. It’s really about the journey… how you connect with your body and mind as you find your way into the pose. So, we replace the word ‘perfection’ with ‘connection’.

People are interested in yoga for a lot of different reasons. Most often I hear people say they want a more gentle form of exercise, gain flexibility, or reduce stress. Often they have an injury that they want to rehabilitate and someone told them yoga would help (back pain? Yes, we can help with that). Yoga can do all those things… plus you will build strength, balance, and likely find a way to bring calm and clarity into your life. And if you’re open to it, you will discover that your yoga practice becomes so much more. It is more than exercise to those of us who fully embrace it.

As a teacher, I’m always excited when a new student comes in to my studio. Often, they are just getting started with their practice or have just decided to start. We begin slowly and do some very gentle stretches and strength building poses. We focus on our breath as we relax into the poses. Most importantly, we work together to discover what yoga is for that individual.

Some words of wisdom. DO make sure you are working with a qualified instructor. Not everyone who teaches a class has been fully trained. DO make sure you enjoy the teacher and class you attend. You should never feel depleted after yoga. You should walk out that door feeling calm, rested, grounded and with a renewed energy for whatever life sends your way. DO NOT allow an instructor to force you into something you find uncomfortable or straining (if the instructor does that, find another class).

And most of all, LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. Yoga is the union of mind and body. Live with within yourself and you will give yourself the greatest gift.

So, welcome to the mat. We’re so very glad you’re here.

atha yoga anuśāsanam

Yoga Sutras, I.1

“Now we come to yoga.”

 

ahiṃsā pratiṣṭhāyāṃ tat-saṃnidhau vaira-tyāgaḥ

Yoga Sutras, II.35

“When the yogi is grounded in the virtue of non-harming, all enmity is abandoned in his presence.”

 

maitri-ādișu balāni

Yoga Sutras, III.23

“By sticking to the principles of non-violence (Ahimsa), one acquires strength and power as well as friendliness.”

 

As I sit down to write this, the United States, where I live, has just gone through a historic campaign to elect a new President. The campaign has been divisive and created a lot of animosity between people. The country is deeply divided and the chosen leaders are deeply disliked by a historic portion of the population. The end result was a surprise and is a deep disappointment to many. But the choice has been made and now we have to move on as a country and work for the good of all citizens.

So what does this have to do with wellness? Everything.

In order to be well, we need to feel safe, we need security, we need the basics of survival: food, shelter, water. Our governments are key in modern society to protecting these needs for individuals. And in order to govern there must be cooperation between people. In a world divided, how do we get there?

Personal wellness is where the journey begins and ends. For those of us who study yoga, we know there are secrets in the Yoga Sutras to guide us. And it is all about unity. ‘Yoga’ is translated as ‘to yoke’, or to create unity within the self by fully integrating mind, body, and spirit and then fully integrating with our world. If we can become accomplished as yogis, we accomplish this goal realizing the best that life has to offer to be whole as individuals and as members of society.

In yoga, we study the eight limbs as a path to wellness and enlightenment, starting with the Yamas. The Yamas are simply five principles of self-discipline. I like to think of them as the first five commandments of yoga. They are Ahimsā (non-violence), Satya (truth), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (chastity), and Aprigrahā (non-greed).

I don’t think it was an accident that when Patanjali took the time to record the basic tenets of yoga in the Yoga Sutras that the first principle he decided to lay down was the practice of Ahimsā. Non-violence, or non-harming, is so essential to our wellness as individuals and as members of society. Without it, we have chaos. Chaos is what many citizens in the United States are fearing today. There has been violence in the campaign we observed. There have been perceived calls to violence. And there is fear that the chosen leader will be quick to use violent actions. In short, we are not well. We are not connected within ourselves and to others. We have lost our way by not practicing our yoga.

So, what about this idea of Ahimsā, non-harming, in yoga? It sounds like it means we need to be kind to others and our earth. It seems to most to be an outward expression. And it is. But that is not the whole story.

How can we be non-harming outwardly when we continue to harm ourselves? In our daily lives we continually do things to sabotage our own wellness. We work too many hours. We do not get enough sleep. We sacrifice time for ourselves in order to do things for others that are not appreciated. We do not eat like we should. The list goes on and on. And what is the result? A society of people who are barely functioning trying to keep up. We are tired and stressed. We are getting sick. Health care costs in Western society are skyrocketing. People are turning to prescription (and non-prescription) drugs to help them function. And it is just getting worse.

As we continue to neglect ourselves, we begin to neglect our society and our world. It is like a snowball. One small harm to ourselves builds into many and as we become unwell we start to lash out. Maybe that outward action is subtle. Something as simple as walking past someone in need or failing to recycle when we can easily do it. It all builds into a population that is suffering. We see it every day.

As a yoga instructor, I talk about non-violence, or non-harming, a lot. Many of us walk into the practice of yoga because we think it will be a path to heal … something. Whether it is stress, a general sense of being off balance, or a physical ailment, we are hearing that yoga is a part of the solution. So we begin to explore. We have an idea that yoga will be good for us and that it is good exercise. What we do not realize is that it brings a richness of practice that will infuse our entire lives. And so the journey of the practice begins as a place for exercise and maybe physical healing. What we find is a wellness that reaches deep to the soul and extends beyond the individual.

Does that mean we all have to practice yoga to be well? From my perspective, I would tell you that we do. But we need to be clear about what yoga is. We have already defined the word ‘yoga’ as meaning ‘to yoke’ or ‘to integrate’. It is all about being a fully integrated person mentally, physically, and with the world around us. The physical Asanas, or poses, are what we as members of society in the West recognize as yoga. The poses are just one part of the practice that will bring us to a fully integrated state. And really, they can be any kind of movement if we do it with full awareness of the body and mind. We have just scratched the surface of yoga and our potential by beginning to move with awareness.

So where do we start? Take your lead from Patanjali. Begin to practice Ahimsā. Do it first. Just as Patanjali put it down as the first of the Yamas, the first limb in yoga.

If we really want to step onto a path of wellness, the first step is to make the decision to stop harming, or being violent to, ourselves. That is where healing begins and ends leading to wellness like we have not known before. We need to give ourselves permission to take time out, be a little bit ‘selfish’. It is okay to tell others no and protect our time. It is okay to get enough sleep and to eat well. And it is definitely okay to find a form of physical exercise that we can personally connect to that brings us a sense of calm and balance.

Make your practice one of exploration. Get to know yourself. What are the things you need to help yourself feel like an integrated person connected to your world? Maybe it is time hiking in the woods, or a massage. Maybe it is just quiet time alone to read a book. Maybe it is taking time for meals and eating better food. Whatever it is, give yourself permission to let go of all your perceived obligations and do something that is just for you. You will be amazed at how quickly all the symptoms of modern life begin to ease and real wellness begins. Now you are beginning to practice Ahmisā at its strongest.

What happens next? As we give ourselves permission to stop harming ourselves, and we start to connect to ourselves as a whole person, we become calmer, less stressed, better rested, and … surprise… more able to extend those same feelings around us. Now we have the capacity for the outward practice of non-harming to the world.

Start with you, then move on to your family, your friends, your workplace, and the greater society. You will discover that you suddenly have more time to do the things you have to do as well as the things you have always wanted to do. And you do it with a richness of spirit that feeds everyone around you. And that snowball begins to build. We all will treat each other better. We will find the kindness that so many of us feel is missing. Our society and world will thrive. All because you made a decision to be non-violent.

It is funny how many people actually apologize to me for not practicing yoga. They have all kinds of excuses from not being flexible to how busy their lives are. I used to think that their apologizing to me was so backward. After all, their lack of a yoga practice belonged to them, it had nothing to do with me. As I think about Ahimsā, I realize how wrong I was. While the choice not to practice Western yoga is an individual choice, the real individual practice of yoga – being an integrated person – impacts us all.

Go back to the basics of the Yoga Sutras. Come to your Yoga. Through Yoga you will find strength, power, and kindness, like no other. You will be fully well and so will your world.