This post is by Claudia Azula Altucher of Claudiayoga.com.
I started practicing yoga because I wanted to look good and feel good. I also wanted to meet men. Through my early practice days I saw that advanced students seemed peaceful, elegant, centered, and almost otherworldly. Little did I know at the time that those were merely projections. Yogis are people, and just like with other people, you can find all kinds.
The promise of what I thought I saw in these practitioners was enough to get me started anyway, and I am glad I did. Yoga brought into my life not just all of the things I initially believed I wanted, but much more. It made me more flexible in body, yes, but it also pointed out other areas of life in which I could bend or stretch more.
Here are some examples of where the practice had a life-changing effect for me.
1. Lifting me from depression
Yoga entered my life and lifted depression away, literally. I’d been on medication from 2003 until 2006, and through the daily practice and everything that happened as a consequence (having a teacher care for me, going to workshops, meeting people, going to brunches with other yogis, learning about yogic principles, and so on), I was able to stop taking drugs.
It didn’t happen overnight—not at all. It took a few years and a lot of trust, but it happened. These days the daily practice of yoga and meditation is so ingrained in my daily activities that I can clearly see how not having it could produce a void that, especially in winter months, could send me singing the blues.
For example, when I took my very first yoga retreat at the end of 2003 in northern British Columbia, I was for the first time aware that one can live life dedicating every action to a higher power, however way we understand that. During that retreat they had us wash lettuce as a dedication, make the bed with total awareness, and stop and pray on the hour, every hour.
Integrating an attitude of devotion, remembering how blessed I was to have food to eat, the possibility of a retreat, and a healthy body, helped me to slowly put things in perspective, and to come into health.
2. Changing the body
The very first way in which yoga showed herself in my life was through my body. I started practicing Ashtanga yoga, which is a set routine practiced every day in the morning, six times a week. What I liked about this particular style is that the student practices on his or her own and poses are added one at the time.
In the beginning the practice was short as I concentrated on learning the poses in the sequence, and the sweating was profuse. I practiced half in a studio and half at home (with a DVD), and within a short period of time of no more than six months I started to notice new muscles in my body, feel more energy, have better posture, and release weight.
Not all styles of yoga are intense like the one I practice, but most classes these days include a comprehensive workout for the whole body. They include backbends, which help with spine flexibility; twists, which help with toxic release and weight loss; inversions, which help us see things differently; and standing routines that build stamina.
Throughout the daily practice of yoga poses, my body began to learn new and change old habits. For example, eating after 7 PM was not an option when I knew I would be attempting a deep twist the following morning.
3. Learning to stop reacting
Practicing yoga asana (poses) every day is perhaps one of the strongest mirrors we can put in front of ourselves. For example, facing a deep twist like Marichasana C is a colossal event.As we learn it, every single cell in the body seems to scream “no” in resistance. Having a teacher direct us to go deeper into the pose and keep breathing is a major exercise, one with profound consequences in real life. What happens when we are able to stay in a pose like this while still breathing and remaining equanimous is akin to a triumph of epic proportions.
We can see the positive effect of that equanimity later on, as we step off the mat. For me it became very clear at work, where I would attend a meeting and go through the usual tensions that spark in such settings. Yet I’d have a moment before reacting—a small silence, a breathing pause—where I would stay with the feeling before saying anything. Most of the time, if not all the time, situations had a way of resolving themselves before I even uttered a word, and all of this was just a consequence of a small silence, of a moment of staying present, quiet, and aware.
4. Finding true relationships
It never takes very long when one starts on the path to yoga to realize that the asana or poses are just the tip of the iceberg. In my own case this started to manifest in very practical ways, and before I even knew that there were ancient codes of behavior, breathing exercises or other limbs, or branches to yoga (there are eight).
Through learning about the new branches I realized that I had some ingrained habits that were no longer serving me. For instance, I was attracting men into my life that were not good for me, and were usually unavailable. Te truth is that this is not something that stopped at men, it was a trend within my life—there were other people around me who I thought of as my friends, but who clearly were not. Through reflection I became more aware of what I was doing not just to my body but also to my emotional being.
Changing a lifetime of habits is not something that happens overnight, and breaking that pattern was not something I did at the snap of my fingers—it was a process that started mostly with point three above. Having enough time before reacting or saying “yes” or “no” to something gave me a better opportunity to search for clarity, and to connect with my own inner wisdom. I continued to make wrong choices (I have to admit) but at least I knew that I was choosing the wrong thing. Whoever says that change is easy is probably not being entirely honest.
After I repeated the pattern of choosing the wrong path while completely aware that I was doing that a few times, it suddenly became clear that I could try something new. For example, I could give myself the chance of believing that I was worth loving. I learned to love and respect myself in this way, slowly but surely, and to re-think my circle of friends and intimate relationships. It paid off.
5. Becoming more efficient
Through a practice we learn to pay attention to the breath. This sounds like an unimportant part of our daily life, but as soon as yoga starts kicking in it becomes clearly the most important thing.
How much energy is used to lift up of a chair, to make a cup of tea, how many words we use in every sentence, how focused we are on the task at hand, it is all deeply connected to how we are breathing. Shallow and fast breathing leads to over talking, and to wasting “prana” or vital energy.
Becoming more and more aware of my breath was the doorway into efficiency within my own body. I started noticing all energies coming in and out, and also how often I was going to the bathroom, what I was eating, what I was talking about, and what I was reading.
By making better choices in all of this areas life became less burdened, I started giving away old clothes to charity and eventually, when I lost my job in 2009, I gave away pretty much everything I had. I became lighter, and determined to carry around only those things I really treasure and need. I became efficient.
6. Changing the spirit
The spiritual side for me manifested in trusting my own insight and intuition, and in listening—truly listening—to what I wanted to do, to the song my heart was singing. Through it I became more and more interested in writing, in reading about yoga, in teaching. Many other doors opened up by way of what I call Divine grace: I learned the powerful effect of mantras, I started paying attention to coincidences and chance encounters, and to follow the clues offered in the most trivial situations.
A challenge of stepping into this path is remaining grounded. When someone starts talking about mantras it is easy to dismiss and think that a person might have gone coo-coo. I would not blame anyone for thinking so; it’s always good to keep things in perspective. Good yoga encourages this, to find the connection with the wondrous spiritual world, yet keep the feet solidly grounded in reality, in feeding the children, and in doing the laundry.
7. Changing the mind
Patanjali is a sage who created a masterpiece called the “Yoga Sutras”—a little book of 196 sentences in which he explains the whole science of yoga, and which needs to be de-coded through a lifetime of study. In the book, only two of the 196 sutras are dedicated to asana or poses. All the rest deal with different issues, mostly related to controlling the mind.
The very first sutra “yoga chitta vritti nirodhah” means that yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind, meaning that yoga is becoming still, one-pointed, so centered that whatever we put our attention on we burn with the fire of intention and we can pretty much manifest anything we want. Funnily enough, apparently once one gains that power, one does not want anything. The paradoxes of spiritual advancement!
Learning to work with the mind transformed me by introducing daily meditation into my life—ten minutes, 20 minutes, or sometimes even 30. It took a while (in the beginning I never found the time or motivation), but these days I need it. Life seems meaningless and depraved of magic if I do not sit on the cushion and meditate.
When I was working in the corporate world in busy New York City, I used to take a walk every day at lunch time to a nearby meditation center and sit for the first half an hour of my time off. This conspired in my life to make me a lot more aware of my priorities, of where energy was being wasted, and gave me insight into how to proceed when in difficult situations.
Meditation is the branch of yoga that has brought the most amount of miracles in my life, perhaps the biggest one being that I now live and do work I love, for which I am very grateful.
Maybe it’s our curiosity to discover traditions that have practiced yoga for a long time, or perhaps it is the fantastic nature of the stories we hear from people coming back from India that eventually makes us curious to travel to see Yoga in its place of origin.
There are many top yoga institutes in major Indian cities like New Dehli, Rishikesh, Chennai, and Mysore. I visited the latter in early 2008 and will be returning soon. For someone living in north America like me, the possibility of visiting Thailand with all its retreat centers and fasting and cleansing facilities became more than a treat. It was a dream, and eventually it happened. Through the grace of yoga I became a curious traveler.
Traveling has a strong effect in the life of the voyager: it opens our eyes, forces us to see things differently (people eat fried insects in some parts of the world), makes us adapt (no brushing your teeth with tap water in India), surprises us, and alchemizes us.
9. Going down the rabbit hole
Somehow this happens when we step on the yoga path: we say goodbye to our old preconceptions and begin to give ourselves the opportunity to look at everything that happens in a new way. We start thinking with new types of images, we dream new possibilities, we become kinder, we notice things, and we see things.
The yogic path is a rewarding way of living, a grounded way to connect with spirit, and a doorway into the magic that lives within us—even as we toss the spinach salad!
Claudia Azula Altucher has studied yoga for over a decade and all over the world including the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India, and at Centered Yoga in Thailand. She writes daily at Claudiayoga.com.