There are countless other newly indoctrinated yogis who have written their ‘how yoga changed me’ stories; claiming yoga saved their lives, how they were lost, now they are found since finding enlightenment in a strong camel pose.
My aim isn’t to convince you that yoga is a cure-all or a silver bullet – and I’d run far away from anyone who tells you it cured their cancer.
But what I might be able to offer, is encouragement to anyone who is feeling like their yoga practise is sub-par. For anyone who hasn’t experienced any life changing magic on the yoga mat, and who might even be thinking that this yoga thing isn’t for them.
I’m hoping I can give those people hope because I was one of those people who, after FIVE years of regular traditional practise (I say traditional, which is very different from deliberate practise) still had not found any of this yogic transformation that so many others claim to have experienced.
Traditional vs. Deliberate Practise
I should explain this difference between this traditional practise (which for sure is better than no practise) and what I believe was my more recent stint at deliberate practise. Deliberate practise is a term that spouted from the mouth of K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist who studied top performers across many fields, from music to medical surgery, sports to software design.
You likely know what it is to learn, practise and master a skill, whether it was the piano, riding a bike, or using a piece of software.
You’ve probably also felt the frustration of not making much progress and the moment when you decide to power through… or simply stop practising altogether.
After a certain point, we don’t improve by just repeating a skill or task, even over a period of many years. That’s because once you reach a reasonable level of competence and are able to do what you need to do, the skill becomes automatic. At best, you’re maintaining your abilities, but not improving them.
That’s exactly what I had been doing with my yoga practise.
I figured I’d hit my wall, and that was it.
Until… I threw in the towel. I actually gave up all forms of exercise in a bout of frustration, early 2017. I decided I wasn’t making any progress in my fitness, strength or flexibility and my body would fluctuate from mildly injured to soft and bloated without any of the fun I used to experience of seeing new lines appear where there wasn’t before.
So I gave up. Classic Cat move. I’m not known for my persistence, but for my ‘try-anything-once’ (and usually, only once) attitude.
The wake-up call
In any good self-transformation story, we have our wake up call.
Mine came in the Amazon rainforest, no less. It was at a retreat centre, during a yoga class (I had not gone there to do yoga, but to drink ayahuasca, a mind-expanding plant medicine… another story for another day) and this one yoga class was enough to remind me: that thing, yoga? Which I used to love so much? It’s still here. It’s not going anywhere, and you can return to it if you choose.
In short, I missed it. It was like seeing an ex after a few years, and being delighted they’re still single.
When I got home, I committed to getting back on track with yoga, and every morning I would roll out the old mat and stick on some Adriene.
This time, it was different. Rather than go into autopilot, I had to start again, almost as a beginner.
I was weak as a kitten and as rigid as a creeky old chair. I had to be patient, and actually follow Adriene’s helpful alignment cues, rather than ignore her with a ‘get on with it!’ snap.
My practise was more deliberate now: I was genuinely consistent, doing my best to follow instruction and I was motivated by the dream of going back to that retreat centre one day and may be even… teaching a class myself.
How Yoga Changed Me
These are the changes, physical, mental and emotional, that I started to see within weeks of my renewed yoga practise:
1) I gained body consciousness
Note: this is very different from feeling self-conscious. I’ve always been someone who is very, very aware of my thoughts – distracting little buggers – but far less aware (sometimes bloody clueless) about my body.
It’s never really been something I inhabit. More like a distant machine that sometimes does what I want, sometimes doesn’t.
Through yoga, I started to become more able to feel aware of my physical being. I could lie in savasana and actually know what the teacher meant when she said ‘feel your hands from the inside out.’
It’s hard to describe the taste of ice cream to someone who’s never had it. Similarly, I’ll be that annoying person who drones on about embodiment like it’s something you can just experience if I tell you about my experience.
But what I will say is: stick with it.
Be open to the possibility that there are MORE sensations than you are currently experiencing (and I fully believe I’ve only started on my body-bonding journey, and have many more layers to peel back) and keep paying attention before, during and after yoga: what can I feel?
2) I chilled the f*ck out
Ooh this is a big one. I’ll admit this is something I’d experienced the first time I found yoga; it’s actually what led me to take up a more formal meditation practise, and ultimately dig myself out of a truly dark hole in my life in my early 20s.
But I was hardly zen, even after years of it. What I know now, is that if I’m feeling like a ball of stress and frustration and rage, I can change my mind by simply taking myself to the mat.
It isn’t instant, but if I stick with it, I can chill out, even just a bit, every single time. That’s a pretty awesome tool.
Plus, even if I’m not near a yoga mat, and find I’m about to fly off the handle, I’m much better at stopping myself, taking a good few deep breaths, and taking my rage down a peg or two.
It still happens of course, we lose our shit and say things we can only blame on our lesser selves (or hanger), but I can feel a noticeable difference when I have practise my yoga that morning vs. when I don’t.
3) I changed shape
Sure, the abdominal definition, slimmer arms and perkier butt are nice… but my favourite and most shocking change were… my toes.
Yes, my toes.
I’ve always had fairly good foot-confidence; while I’m not a fetishist, I’ve never been appalled by the sight of my own feet.
But in the past I’ve had some foot trouble: a tendency to over-supinate (I think) resulting in aches and pains from my feet up to my knees, to my hips and lower back. Not fun! I’ve been walking for nearly 30 years: you’d think I’d have nailed it by now…
It came as some relief to learn that walking correctly is actually challenge for most shoe-wearing humans, and that footwear that overly protects and cramps our feet aren’t doing us any favours.
If you’ve studied a little kid’s foot, you might have noticed there’s a notably different, more triangular shape to their feet. Their toes tend to be the widest point: splaying out at will, rather than bending into each other uncomfortably like so many of our tend to do.
Let’s get to the surprise.
One warm evening, I was curled up in bed watching a documentary, probably about yoga. I stuck my foot out from under the covers for a little airing and stretching and looking at it I was quite alarmed.
NONE of my toes were touching.
And I wasn’t flexing it; my foot was fully relaxed – feeling rather good actually.
Could it be that yoga was changing my foot shape?
Apparently this is a real side-effect of yoga, and one that can really improve balance and over all prevent foot pain.
Unsurprisingly, my foot pain hasn’t returned since my new spider-monkey-like toe changes.
4) I started moving differently
I’ve never been a particularly graceful type. I went to about three ballet classes as a little kid, before deciding that Saturday morning was better spent watching Rocko’s Modern Life.
My posture has never been good, and sitting up straight with my shoulders back gave me an unnatural amount of pain, so… I stopped trying.
Until yoga cam and infiltrated my life.
Now I’m not saying I glide around like a supermodel – at 5’3″, I have a long way to go.
But it has helped me carry myself better: and by that I just mean I’m more aware of how I move and I find it easier (possibly due to more core strength and better balance) to simply walk down the street.
Whilst this doesn’t sound exactly life changing, and you probably wouldn’t notice if you saw me, but from inside: this is one of my biggest changes. How you move through life physically, I believe, reflects on how you move through life on an emotional and mental level too.
When I move smoothly and easily physically, I feel like I can handle what comes my way with more ease too.
Plus, I seem to be walking into stuff less too now.
5) I became more productive
This is one of the clear, measurable side effects I’ve found from practising more deliberately every day – often twice a day – and I imagine it could be extended to any positive habit you take up and stick to on the daily.
For me, yoga is something that marks the start of my day, and seems to really make a difference to how I approach the rest of my to-dos.
Taking that time for myself, time to check in on how I’m doing and not just jumping straight into other people’s agendas for me, seems to make me more able to show up a lot more enthusiastic and energised when it is time to start work.
I think the same would be the case if you started to meditate every morning or go for a run, but for me: yoga is the one thing that sticks, and which I can always look forward to, regardless of what I’ve got ahead of me.