Yoga brings balance to your life. Yoga brings happiness. Yoga makes you a better person. Yeah, I’ve seen the memes too. It seems like no matter whom you are, no matter how well you can perform side crow, and no matter how often you practice yoga, the result is the same: If you do yoga, you are happier. But WHY?
As a relatively new yogi (less than 3 years) I still vividly remember going into my first Vinyasa session and listening to the instructor tell me to free my mind, meditate, and not to worry about my shortcomings. As a very self-critical person, I found this guidance annoying, intrusive, and down-dog wrong: “What are you talking about?” I would silently ask the instructor, “My Warrior 2 was pathetic, and five minutes ago I tried a headstand and knocked over three people!” I wanted to be good at everything I did, and yoga was no exception. At that point, I had never (and still do not) based my success relative to that of others, but I refused to accept anything less than my highest expectations.
There was where my problem lay. I dwelled on my failures instead of my success. In sports, it was victory or defeat. In weights, it was triumph or failure. There was no middle ground. Success was measured in numbers, statistics, and ratings. Effort, while appreciated, was a distant second best. When you stop and think about it, it is truly a destructive way of measuring success. You set the bar so high for yourself that when you reach your goal all you feel is grim contentment, and then when you fail to reach your expectations you are filled with profound disappointment. You tell yourself that setting these high, often unrealistic goals makes you better, when in reality it recreates the reality of Tantalus, who could never stoop low enough to drink the water, and who could never reach high enough to pluck the fruit from the branches. Your friends notice that you are unhappy, but they attribute your unhappiness to your preoccupation with ambition. The truth is that your high expectations are making you miss out on the intended result of fulfilling your high expectations: happiness. Now how does this tie back into yoga?
The meditation at the end of every yoga class is what makes yoga yoga. Without it, you would just be doing a less torturous version of Bikram. (Nothing against Bikram yoga, I still do it from time to time and find it absolutely amazing – but it isn’t yoga.) The end of class where you wind down, lying flat on your back with your palms open to the sky and listen to the instructor as he tells you to forget about the outside world, to leave your body and to concentrate on your inner self WITHOUT judgment – that is when the magic of yoga happens. Filled with endorphins from the workout you have just finished, you channel your energy to reflect the words of your teacher as he says the following, in one way or another: “Appreciate what you were able to do today. Do not dwell on that which you could not do.”
The first time you hear it you may react the same way that I did; with doubt. How could you possibly accept yourself if you couldn’t do it? One hundred sessions later, you may respond differently. One hundred sessions later, all the hours spent on the yoga mat may start to have an impact on your life outside of yoga. It is at the point that you have practiced yoga to the extent that it penetrates your everyday life that you can truly appreciate the happiness that yoga brings. It isn’t the flexibility, the core strength, or even the improved sex life from yoga that makes you happy. Yoga brings happiness because it helps you take on the biggest challenge that you will encounter while living: your acceptance of yourself.