Beyond the Physical: What Makes a Yogi

When people find out I teach yoga, particularly young people, the first question is almost always, “Teach me something!”

It happens all the time, whenever I’m not at the studio or other yoga-centric location. The request almost always comes from someone who’s never done yoga, or only dabbled in it a few times. It always comes from a good place, but it usually makes me feel put on the spot to deliver some grand lesson on how to get into one of those pretty poses you see on your Instagram feed. And usually, this is the point where my ego pops up: Show them that cool arm balance. Do that neat backbend. They’ll think that inversion is really impressive!

And for awhile, I did it. I acted like a contortionist, popping out impressive poses on a cold body because I felt like I should, like I needed to prove that yoga was more than down dog. But the longer I practice and the more I teach, the more I’m able to see that this is completely counter to what I truly believe yoga is.

To me, yoga transcends the physical. It’s a practice that incorporates breath, mindfulness, intention, and way of life. And for me to boil it down into poses that “look cool” to entice people into exploring yoga feels almost cheap. So whenever someone asks me to “teach them something”, my reaction is now to take a deep breath and hold myself back from launching into a spiel about how yoga-is-more-than-just-the-physical-asana -in-fact-that’s-only-one-of-the-many-limbs-of-yoga-and-have-you-read-the-Yamas-and-Niyamas-I-think-you-might-like-it.

But that’s not the right reaction, either. They didn’t ask me for a lesson on yogic philosophy, and they didn’t ask me to define what role yoga should take in their life. Just because I’ve chosen to incorporate more of yoga’s practices into my own lifestyle, doesn’t mean they have to, or their lives will be worse for not doing so. And it would be hypocritical of me to assume that everyone should launch into yoga full-steam ahead, pumped for a solid meditation practice and affirmation work. I came to yoga just like many others: for the physical. I came to class to get stronger, more flexible, and, to be honest, to do some of those cool poses.

Because yoga is more than just the physical. It’s the journey that accompanies it. When I first found yoga, I practiced every day for 30 consecutive days. I fell in love with it, despite how nervous I was about doing something “wrong”, and I wanted to go back over and over again. And I remember, about a week or two in, things started clicking. I started connected names with poses, identifying “checkpoints” throughout the class that cued me in on where we were headed next, recognizing theming in the way different teachers taught. I didn’t feel as lost or confused as I had in my first class, and the nerves that usually hit me before a practice started to be replaced with excitement.Throughout my progression in my first taste of asana, I started to gain confidence in my worthiness or ability to attend a class, and to me, that transcends the physical. Were my chaturangas still sloppy and my Crescent Lunges still sometimes Warrior Is? Sure. But what changed was the way I felt about the class, the way I felt about myself.

At this point, I didn’t even know yoga had “eight limbs”. In fact, if someone had told me that, I’d probably have pictured some kind of octopus yogi contorting themselves on a mat. But what I did know is that yoga was changing the way I thought. The way the classes were structured and the way the cues were delivered allowed me to feel something I’d never felt before: that I didn’t need to know how to do everything perfectly right off the bat. In fact, I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do, and no one in that room was going to care, let alone notice. The stress I felt in my everyday life to be perfect one hundred percent of the time evaporated the second I walked into the studio, and it felt like a million pounds lifting off my shoulders.

While this journey certainly was closely aligned with the physical, it was, at it’s center, the mental progression of yoga. Sure, I eventually figured out that I shouldn’t go so low in my Chaturangas and that Crescent Lunge is different from Warrior I, but as I made these physical changes, I didn’t even realize that my mind was gaining strength as well. Yoga is sneaky like that- it tricks you into evolving with breath. We can only change if we can breathe, and yoga gave me permission to slow down, reconnect, and begin a new chapter. For every Chaturanga I messed up, I learned that the world will not end because I did something wrong. For every Crescent Lunge I did with my heel spun down, I learned that the people around me won’t notice that I make little mistakes, just like everyone else.

And so I understand, now, why people want me to “show them x,y,z” pose. Because yoga pulls you in with its physical expression, and slowly starts to creep into the rest of your life. And if all you ever do is the asana on the mat, that’s enough. For some, the practice ends there, and to me, that’s still a yoga practice. There will always be more to explore there, but it’s not integral to your definition of or identity as a “yogi”. Any yoga is still yoga.

So if a friend wants to try an arm balance, I’m not going to launch into a spiel about how yoga is about more than doing cool-looking postures. I’m not going to lecture them on the importance of breath or self-study or mindful living. I’m going to show them ways to try out an arm balance. Because it’s fun. And yoga is fun. And life is about joy, not doing anything- especially yoga- perfectly.

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to practice yoga. If you do free YouTube videos at home in the evenings, that’s a practice. If you religiously attend class everyday, that’s a practice. If you come hang out with me at school and ask me how to do Bakasana, I consider even that a practice. Because you’re getting out of your head and into your body. You’re exploring what you’re capable of and where you have room to grow. You’re enjoying life and what it has to offer, and that makes you a yogi.

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