5 Ways Yoga Changed My Outlook on Life—Here’s How It Can Help You, Too

Let me start out by saying this: I am not a yogi. I mean, I guess in a very literal sense, I practice yoga therefore I am a yogi. But I am not a yogi in one of the stereotypical ways, meaning I’m not a) someone with a kind of mystical presence that smells like patchouli, nor am I b) a woman with a wardrobe of matching yoga sets who can launch into a headstand while performing splits.

I say this because, as much as I love these kinds of yogis now, I was once someone standing on the outside of the yoga world looking in, skeptical that I could fit in, and to be honest, a little scared to try. So, if you’re like me, I totally get it.

Despite my fears, I did step into a yoga studio one day. About five years ago, I took a class for the first time. Despite my friends inviting me to yoga, touting the physical and mental benefits, I’d resisted, opting instead for daily runs on my way to half and full marathons.

But as my body got older and my feet, legs, and back started rebelling, a physical therapist insisted I try yoga. My hamstrings were tight, my hips were weak, and my back hurt. I had a half marathon on the schedule, so I decided to give it a shot to save my race. I’m glad I did, but not because I miraculously gained flexibility and continued on my running journey. No, yoga changed my life and attitude in other ways that made me healthier, happier, and more physically and mentally balanced.

We all have seen studies and headlines that preach the numerous benefits of yoga. It helps us deal with stress, improves the quality of our sleep, and improves our cognitive skills, per Harvard Health.

For me, it went beyond that. Those five years ago when I wandered into a small yoga studio in Dallas, one of my very first yoga instructors was Ana Jones, The Quantum Heartshift Practitioner, meaning she helps people find spiritual healing.

She’s practiced yoga for nearly two decades and has been teaching for almost 10 years. She was also one of my first yoga instructors and someone who had a profound impact on my yoga practice. We’ve kept in touch even though I now live in Utah and she’s in Lisbon, Portugal.

“I think yoga is just so beneficial, not just physically, but mentally,” she says. “It can be very somatic. I love the fact that there are layers, and you can keep going deeper into it.”

Like me, Jones started yoga as a physical activity but discovered how the asanas, or poses, were doing more than just helping her get physically stronger. As we talked, it was clear that every person will have their own individual yoga journey. But if you’re open to being vulnerable and trying new things in your practice, you might learn your lessons that can lead to self-discovery and bring more inner peace.

These are the lessons I learned and how yoga changed my life.

1. Don’t force it

I remember in one of my first classes, Sean, one of the other instructors at the studio I had joined, was guiding us through a flow and eventually into extended triangle pose. In it, your feet are apart, you raise your hands parallel to the floor, and then exhale to extend your torso over your front leg, hinging from your hips. Your arms reach in opposite directions, and you can rest your hand on your shin, a block, or the floor.

I arranged my limbs according to his directions as best I could and stuck my hand on the floor—because I could and because that was what I considered the most challenging variation of the pose. In my head, I’d nailed it. Then, he arrived at my mat to slightly adjust whatever the heck my body was doing.

He gently explained that the point was not to force myself into the deepest position, but to create space. I still remember him explaining that I should feel challenged but good, that there was no “right” way to make the shape, but that I should be able to send my breath around my body. This was a weird concept to me and far different than what I was trying to do, which was jamming myself into a place that my brain said was the hardest level.

In my other fitness ventures, I was always trying to force myself to the next level. How many more reps can I get at a certain weight? How many more miles can I maintain at this speed? But in yoga, this was a no-no.

I learned that consistency would allow my body to open up and go deeper into the poses. I would also learn that every day would be different. Sometimes you don’t have the space to put your hand on the floor and sometimes you need a block. Both are fine.

What’s cool is that I realized how important this concept was for running and other forms of exercise—sometimes not forcing a certain pace or weight will go a long way in your overall training (not to mention preventing injury).

But perhaps more importantly, this concept helped me evolve holistically. About a year after starting yoga, my life felt overwhelming. My job was chaos, requiring me to work 12 hours per day. I was in a state of constant stress and hellbent on achieving the next position or accolade. In a moment of despair, I realized there was no space in my life.

I left that position, and my next role allowed me to grow in other ways outside of work. Looking back in the context of yoga, I saw that I decided to stop forcing something I had jammed myself into. If one job was the very awkward extended triangle pose that left me unable to breathe, the next was a slight adjustment that gave me the space to find joy.

2. Accept imperfection

Jones was always really great about giving her class permission to be free of judgment. She would remind us to not compare ourselves to others. When I asked her why this is important, she told me: “It’s not about detecting the flaws and trying to fix things.”

She then added a mantra that’s useful for everyone: “There’s nothing to fix in my existence, I am always worthy.”

Once I accepted that I couldn’t force myself into poses, I recognized that the shapes I was making with my body were not going to look like what I might see in Yoga Journal.

When I accepted that, it was pretty easy let go of that quest for perfection. To me, this was an invaluable lesson. As someone who struggles with perfectionism, I was stunned that I could have an activity where I was invited to just be.

“Life can get really complicated and it can feel like we have this list of checking things and checking the boxes where no matter what we do, it’s just never enough and we can’t get there,” Jones says. “I think it can be powerful if we just permit ourselves to be like, ‘Okay, right now I feel like I’ve arrived at this moment. What I’m doing is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, and this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.’”

This concept of just being can be used in a pose on the mat, or in any minute or season of life. Jones likes to say it’s important to honor that “perfection is in the moment.”

“That’s the beauty of yoga—and life. Every day is different, and as long as you are accepting of yourself and the world around you, you can keep trying.”

3. It’s okay to be still (and it’s also okay to not be still)

I think there are a lot of people who will empathize with my inability to sit still. Runners, Type-A’s, neurodivergents—I am in all these camps and some days it can take every ounce of energy I have to just settle down and stay in one place.

This demand for stillness in yoga was somewhat of a turnoff for me. At first, just being stuck in one place for what felt like 700 breaths was just the worst. I hated it. I wanted to be on to the next thing—out of downward facing dog and into Malasana squat and crow pose (my two faves). But as I kept going back to classes, I started slowing down enough to wonder why I was so restless. Why could I challenge myself to run 26.2 miles but be so annoyed by hanging out in one position for a mere 30 seconds?

For many go-go gadget-type people, the answer will be complex. Maybe it’s a medical condition, a trauma response, or a to-do list that’s too full. That’s all okay. Even the lack of stillness and disgruntled feeling in stillness is okay, Jones says.

“Throughout the years, I’ve just found a different definition for stillness,” she says. “There is no such thing as absolute stillness anyway. Your heart is beating, your lungs are breathing, they’re expanding and they’re contracting. So, I want to give everyone the opportunity to not get so hung up on the concepts of achieving stillness.”

Instead, she recommends asking yourself “What is stillness for me?”

It might not be the 700 breaths in one pose for you. It was not for me—in fact, stillness for me was that opportunity for introspection. To have enough time to wonder why being in one place was so boring was more healing than any restorative breathing. I was able to untangle a part of myself and give myself permission to move when I wanted to and not move when I wanted to.

When I practice yoga now, I don’t try to force my mind or body into stillness. I let it do what it wants. If my mind wants to run through its checklist while I’m in a pose, I let it. Usually, then, I can go through the rest of the practice without stress or feeling like I need to be somewhere else. To me, that’s stillness.

4. Just play

Possibly the most important lesson I learned from yoga—and one that really helped me on my way to getting out of the mindset of perfection—was the concept of play. In retrospect, this might’ve been what I was most afraid of before I walked through the studio doors.

To me, play in yoga is simply to attempt a pose or position without the expectation of getting into it, and without judgment. The best example I have is when Jones invited everyone into crow pose. Crow is an arm balance where you essentially put your knees on your upper arms so you’re perched like a bird with its beak down. When I looked at her giving the example to the class I guffawed. I thought, “There is no way I am going to to put my lower body on my arms like that—how is that even possible?”

But I remember her inviting the class (of mostly beginners) to play.

“I think play gives you just permission to explore the body and find out your capacity,” Jones says. “Exploring that range of motion and that flexibility that you have that you might not even know because of the rigidity of adulting.”

I still remember the panic of this first “play time.” I had enough pride to know I needed to try and not just sit back in child’s pose (which there’s nothing wrong with, by the way!), but I was self-conscious enough to not make eye contact with anyone, including myself in the mirror. What I realize now is that was my true fear: attempting something and failing. What would people think? What would I think?

I tried it, though. I started in my squat, leaned my knees into my armpits, launched myself onto my wrists, and tumbled to the side of my mat. And I laughed. I laughed because I was embarrassed, but I also laughed because it was kind of fun to teeter over and fall. And I wanted to try again. It was reminiscent of being a kid—of learning and wanting to master something new.

Jones says this is what she hopes people, regardless of whether or not they practice yoga, can emulate in life.

“Let’s put our energy where it’s actually going to be of more value. I think if we put more energy into play versus the unrealistic and unattainable, not even sustainable perfection, we’re just going to enjoy life so much more,” she says.

5. The practice continues

Nowadays, I don’t think about yoga as a complement to running or even as the great teacher in my life. It’s just something I do that happens to give me a lot of annoying metaphors that help me as I try to make sense of the world.

It truly has taught me a lot though, and I think the greatest lesson is that I am more than my accomplishments. I was able to build a foundation for an identity away from my job, publications, and race schedule.

Whenever I get too hung up on needing to achieve something, I think about how I would approach it through a yoga framework. I might ask myself: Am I forcing this or is this an opportunity to grow? Am I comparing myself to others or is this just for me? Am I scared of failure or can I play around and learn as I go?

Yoga classes now are casual and comfortable for me. I don’t force my body into positions that don’t feel right. I can find stillness when I want to and move when I feel like it. I try not to compare myself to others and forgive myself when I inevitably do. And I play—I play a lot. I can arm balance, shoulder balance, and make a lot of great bird shapes. I may never be brave enough to get on my head unassisted. Still, I’ll keep trying.

And that’s the beauty of yoga—and life. Every day is different, and as long as you are accepting of yourself and the world around you, you can keep trying.

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