How and Why to Start a Yoga Practice

June 7, 2016

yoga_2Yoga is an ancient practice that uses breathing, moving, relaxing and meditating to achieve self-awareness and well being. Maybe you think it is a little bit weird. Maybe you think it looks kind of cool but find it sort of intimidating? Whichever your experience, it is worth the effort to explore it a bit more. A growing body of research is showing the many benefits of yoga, from regulating our emotions, to healing back pain, to improving memory. Yoga helps. Whatever your goals with substance use, yoga can help you and here’s how:

AWARENESS: Yoga encourages mindful awareness of your whole experience. Maintaining presence with your body (and its alignment) and your breath can improve your capacity to be in the present moment, the here and now. Through yoga, you can learn to attend to your physical sensations, feelings and thoughts and over time come to understand how fleeting in nature they are. As you become more aware, you give yourself the opportunity to SEE, PAUSE and CHOOSE how to respond to your experiences in life.

KINDNESS: Many of us struggle with an inner critic, the self-judgment that pops up when we try something new or make a mistake. In yoga, the concept of “ahimsa”, a Sanskrit word that translates as “non-harming”, is applied to the practice. You are encouraged to treat yourself gently and with kindness. This might look like NOT forcing your body into poses it is not ready for or countering a negative or comparative thought with one like, “this is where I’m at right now”. The practice of self-compassion is an innate quality that can be cultivated, practiced and deliberately lived. A little bit of self-compassion goes a long way and can quickly begin to positively influence the quality of your everyday life.

TOLERANCE: Yoga gives us the invaluable experience of practicing being with what is. Uncomfortable in a forward bend? Breathing in a new way kicking up some anxiety? Stay with it. Breathe through it. Notice the sensation. By not forcing, and not giving up, we build up our capacity to tolerate our experiences. You can learn to be with your experience, as difficult as it may be, and make it through to the other side. In doing so, you can learn you don’t have to avoid discomfort or try to alter it (e.g., with substances). As you stack up multiple experiences like this, you can begin to build the confidence you need to endure things like sadness, fear and cravings.

CONNECTION: There are many levels of connection in yoga. First and foremost, when you commit to sitting on that mat, even for 3 minutes, you are connecting with yourself, in that moment, and with whatever is present (everything is welcomed!). This is significant. We go through our busy days and never take a moment to stop and check in. As a bonus, there is a connection to your fellow yoga practitioners in the room AND potentially, a community of people open to and interested in yoga. And as a double bonus, you are connecting to humanity! Yes. When you take a moment to truly see and honor your own experience you can’t help but acknowledge it is an experience shared by others- even someone halfway around the globe. You are not alone.

HEALTH: Everything else aside, yoga can help you feel good and healthy. It improves flexibility, balance and strength and can help you move with more efficiency and flow. Yoga decreases the influence that your stress response has on the rest of your system (read: less stress hormones, less tension, more effective immune system). Practicing regularly can help with sleep, mood and may influence what you decide to put into your body. Ultimately, gaining a sense of mastery feels good and puts you in control.

And the intimidating part? It’s true. It takes a little push to get yourself to that new studio or that first class. Some helpful hints:

  • Take the level 1 or beginner class
  • Let the teacher know you’re new to the studio/practice
  • Go with a friend
  • Splurge on a private to get comfortable and tailor the practice to your body’s needs
  • Be kind to yourself and don’t take it all too seriously … laugh!
  • Beginner’s mind is a gift- be OPEN to your new experience
  • Remember it’s NORMAL to feel nervous when you are trying something new

Stay focused on why you’ve chosen to practice (see benefits above) and don’t worry about Little Miss/Mister Flexible next to you. Yoga can and should be accessible and fun. If one class doesn’t work for you… try out another!

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