Illustration by Sezi Kaya of an individual doing yoga in front of a sunflower
Yoga is so much more than I'd anticipated. (Illustration by Sezi Kaya, Parsons School of Design)

The Benefits of Exploring Yoga, From an Ex-Non-Believer

At its core, this practice crafts a journey for the individual to find mindfulness and peace in an increasingly chaotic and uncertain world.

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Illustration by Sezi Kaya of an individual doing yoga in front of a sunflower

At its core, this practice crafts a journey for the individual to find mindfulness and peace in an increasingly chaotic and uncertain world.

Take in a deep, cleansing breath and then empty it from your lungs. This is the first thing I do every time I set foot on my yoga mat. I just breathe.

Breath is an action that comes so naturally to us that we begin to take our living, breathing autopilot for granted. We can spend entire days and weeks without ever intentionally taking a breath and rest assured that our body will take care of it for us. There are simply too many other things to worry about in our daily lives for us to be concerned with filling our lungs with air and emptying them out.

But then why is it so relieving to take a deep breath? It’s actually counterintuitive. By taking the body off autopilot, we can direct our mind to our most instinctive action. In doing so, we release the mind from the weight of thought, if even for just a moment.

The practice of yoga inherently mandates intentional breathing. Every single action is prefaced with an intake or outpour of breath. Many worry that breathing with purpose wastes precious space in a mind crowded with mountains of responsibilities, but they’re wrong. Yoga has granted me the ability to fine tune my focus to the one task that we’ve known how to do since birth and relieve my mind of anything that’s more complicated than the healing flow of air through my body.

The journey toward this utmost faith in yoga was an unexpected one. Before last year, I assumed yoga was largely a Western appropriation of a classic Indian tradition, served with a side of hippie dippy positivity and vapid buzzwords like “oneness.” I fell victim to the crime of hyper-feminine and whitewashed marketing of yoga toward wealthy, middle-aged suburban moms. Yoga, in my mind, manipulated its participants to partake in glorified stretching under the guise of exercise.

I eventually gave yoga a shot out of curiosity. Shockingly, I found it to be both physically difficult and mentally freeing. But yoga requires practice. One or two free classes was not enough to impart me with the discipline, flexibility and strength that are crucial for successful results long-term.

During the never-ending months of quarantine, the dismal union of an increasingly chaotic world and a mind unequipped to handle it lured me back to yoga. This time, my access to the practice was a YouTube channel, Yoga with Adriene.

The channel’s namesake, Adriene Mishler, took the YouTube health space by storm, and for good reason. Adriene welcomes every viewer to their yoga mat with a warm smile and gentle greeting. As a bonus, she is often accompanied by her peaceful pup, Benji. Her channel teems with an assortment of yoga flows to help ease the mind and body, ranging from weight loss-focused exercises to “Yoga for Writers.” You can participate in a 30-day yoga challenge, or set aside a quick 10 minutes to ease upper back pain.

Adriene’s astounding success and millions of views come as no surprise. At its core, yoga centers around the individual’s journey toward a more mindful, balanced and healthy lifestyle. The yoga industry’s blinders toward diversity and accessibility have more to do with profit margins than yoga’s central dogma. Using the freedom of a platform like YouTube, Adriene seized the opportunity to strip yoga down to its humblest form. A YouTube viewer doesn’t have to scope out a yoga class and match their identity with the standards of the yoga industry.

The barriers to entry melt away. You just have to be intentional in your practice and lend yourself to the journey of yoga with no expectations of the results.

Adriene carefully weaves a tone of gratitude and calmness into each yoga journey she guides you through. At the start of one video, Adriene pushes you to “allow yourself to let go of the day thus far and politely put whatever you have to do after this practice on hold. Then use this time — really take it to integrate a little more awareness into your life.”

She patiently teaches the tenets of breath, stillness, surrender and self-care in a time when we are imprisoned by the motion and mindless occupation of our new normal. The individual is the epicenter of the practice, as constantly reaffirmed by Adriene’s encouragement to “find what feels good” and listen to your body rather than rigidly abide by her instruction.

A yoga flow offers the rare opportunity to marvel in the wonders of the body: the flow of energy from the core out to the fingertips, the sharp aches at points of tension and the strength of the mind in overcoming any perceived physical limitations. No matter what complicated positions the video demonstrates, every motion is led with the simple act of breath. Each pose is not just a stretch, but a testament to the rushing current of energy flowing through the body and the individual’s connection with the Earth.

Beyond its physical practice, yoga’s ritualistic aspects present a rare drop of mindful, intentional certainty among a turbulent sea of uncertainty that has washed over society. You might start off cross-legged or on all fours, and slowly deepen your breath. You’ll be led through a series of positions and flows, peppered with the classic downward facing dog.

You’ll end in Savasana, blanketed and uplifted by the sure and solid ground, with every muscle in your body freshly renewed. You’ll enjoy a last moment of peace and gratitude before placing your hands together and whispering “Namaste,” if you’re into that.

Embracing yoga as a ritual rather than a casual activity can mark the shift toward a greater appreciation for all of yoga’s mental and physical rewards. After several months of consistent yoga practice, I find myself more flexible than I have ever been. But I also notice subtle changes in my thoughts and actions. My temper and impatience have mellowed, my willpower has strengthened and my appreciation for my able and healthy body has flourished.

I savor the feeling of my body moving as a single unit, and not a tangle of disconnected moving parts. I feel relief at the newfound option to surrender myself when my mind requires control. And I allow time to slip away in the stillness of each pose without feeling guilty for the time I am investing into taking care of myself. Yoga reminds us that the luxury of mindfulness and peace is not a distant ideal. Fortunately, these benefits are just a click away.

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