When I first started yoga, I came to my mat every time asking what it could do for me.
It was necessary at the time. I was 14, fresh out of the hospital, recovering from an eating disorder, and desperate for change. I was tired of feeling lonely in the world, and tired of feeling as though I was wandering aimlessly through life without a path to follow. My body needed healing, my heart needed healing, my soul needed healing.
At this point in my life, everything I was doing was with the sole intention of healing myself. In many ways, that was the collective goal of my family at the time, as well. I couldn’t even begin to fathom the total number of hours spent traveling to and from doctor’s visits and therapy sessions, trying anything at all to repair the damage my disorder had raged on my life. Every meal was a battle, and every bite was a tiny victory.
It’s remarkably exhausting to be caught in that mindset for so long. Healing is, somewhat paradoxically, exhausting. It takes hard work and effort every moment of every day. But yoga was the first thing I found that made healing feel, if not effortless, at least as nourishing as it was effortful.
I have such clear and cherished memories of my first year practicing yoga at Just Be, laying on my mat and staring up at the eggshell rafters and watching the light pour into the room through the big, glass doors. I remember the goosebumps I’d get listening to my teachers offer up the lessons I so desperately needed with ease, as though it was the Universe speaking through them directly to me. I remember the first time I let my hands rest on my belly without shame in supta baddha konasana, a space on my body I’d associated with so much shame throughout my disease touching it filled me with dread. I remember the first few months that flowing felt graceful and intuitive instead of choppy and stubborn, how wonderful it felt to move like water in a time when I felt more like ice.
Yes, each time I returned to my mat I craved those breakthrough moments when the ice began to chip away and reveal what was underneath. I was addicted to it, in a way. It was a high I was riding on that was so much lighter than the high my disorder offered me. I looked forward to each class with anticipation, wondering what new lesson I’d capture that day.
I could feel my life changing, in 75-minute chunks at a time, and it felt so much more tangible than any of the other life-changing measures I’d taken thus far. Therapy was hard to quantify, the doctor’s appointments felt like an old-western standoff with no winners. My body was healing so slowly it was hard to appreciate. But the yoga moved through my body fast and with a youthful excitement: each practice felt a little easier, a little lighter, and it proved to me that I was capable of healing.
Today, though, I find that my practice is no longer solely for me.
It is my time for self-care, to be sure, and it’s a time that feels sacred and refreshing each time without fail. But I’ve begun to realize that my practice has undergone a deep transformation into one of service to others.
No longer do I come to my mat asking only what it can do for me, I ask myself what it can stir up within me to help others, too. Each lesson I learn I find myself translating into a language I can pass on through both my words and my actions. Each personal breakthrough and goosebump-inducing realization I see not just as a personal victory, but as something that strengthens me into a more empathetic and effective leader. Perhaps most importantly, my practice has transformed into something that prepares me to show up as my best self for everyone that I encounter throughout my day.
I don’t view this period in my practice as better or worse than any other one I’ve had before, but I do view it with a deep reverence. It’s proved to me that the work yoga allows us to do is a long process that unfolds slowly over time, each chapter just as beautiful and meaningful as the last one. The first chapter is the one that I see with an eager excitement in new students, the one I carried with me those first few years of healing. It’s one of asking “What can the yoga do for me?” And then, as we heal and as we learn how to fill our own cups first, we then begin to ask, “How can the yoga prepare me to serve others?”
To be clear, the first chapter is no more selfish than the later ones. In fact, I think learning how to seek out the things that take care of us is an entirely necessary and often-overlooked step in the process towards changing the world. Leaders cannot guide others through change without doing the work themselves, first. In order to help others find healing, we must first feel what it is like to heal in our own lives and bodies.
Your yoga practice serves you, and it prepares you to serve.
It’s a symbiotic relationship with no winners or losers. It nourishes you so that you can nourish others, it allows you to learn the tools of healing first hand so that someday, you can help guide someone else through them, too. Your yoga practice is for you, but it is not all about you.
The healing work we do, the effort we put into being confident and peaceful and aware and grateful is not just so we can throw our hands in the air one day and say, “Woo! I did it! I’m enlightened as fuck!”
It’s so that we can go on into the world and put to use all that we’ve learned to begin the cycle again anew in someone else. It’s so that we inspire just one other person to begin their own first chapter, to seek out what the yoga can do for them. It’s so that someday, they start asking how the yoga can help them serve others.
And so that someday, they will find their own unique way to continue the healing. Perhaps they will heal the earth, perhaps they will heal the sick, perhaps they will heal the disadvantaged. But the healing will go on, and we will all be better for it.
So yes, the yoga is for you. But it is certainly not all about you.
It’s about so much more than any one of us. And that’s what makes it special.