I was in an easy half-lotus on my mat, at my most favourite spot in my most favourite yoga studio. It was a gorgeous morning. The spring sunlight streaming into the room was so splendid, I couldn’t ignore it even through closed eyes.
“Pay attention to what you hear right now.” The melodic baritone winding its way through our mats belonged to our instructor, the founder of both the studio and its specialised yoga form. “Listen to whatever sound fills your ears at this moment.” As if on cue: a series of squawks from the family of birds in the branches grazing the studio’s patio; a cheer from a cricket-playing boy in the park below; a stream of exasperated honking (the studio is heaven, but it is very much located in Delhi).
Up until that moment, and indeed, after it, the only sounds I heard were the cadences of my teacher’s voice, the instrumentals from the yoga playlist wafting through the speakers, and the always-comforting white noise of inhalations and exhalations. Yet, as soon as we were asked to pay attention to what we heard, a bouquet of sounds erupted around us. Of course it did. Yoga has a way of giving you what you need, when you need it.
Yoga has been part of my life for a long time. Because my parents are Indian (and somewhat hippie-dippie), I have grown up around yoga. On weekends, after being forced to wake up at “a decent time” – teenage circadian rhythm be damned – I would stomp into their room to ask about the wildly exciting plan for the day that so desperately hinged on my sleep being disrupted. As I’d rub my eyes blearily and frown at them, I’d find them well into their morning, with multiple rounds of tea and a walk under their belt, doing yoga together. Watching them was strange and fascinating. They’d be in mirror-image cat-cows (is that what people mean when they say married couples start to resemble each other?), synchronised surya namaskars, vigorous rounds of bhastrika breathing, or (having been pulled out of bed way too early, this last one always made me jealous) serene shavasanas.
My parents believe in the subtle power of yoga. They’ve attended yoga courses and organised workshops around the world. They’ve shipped their collection of ancient, moth-eaten books by and about famous yoga gurus to every new place they’ve moved to. And they’ve tried to open their kids’ eyes to the beauty of yoga. I remember going on father-daughter morning jogs, only to be sneakily coerced into a cool-down yoga session. My parents would read out newspaper articles on the science behind breathing in and breathing out. They’d show me DK guides with glossy pictures of yogis somehow beaming their way through impossible pretzel-like contortions.
For the most part, their endorsement worked. I was intrigued by the principles of yoga, its history, geography, and chemistry. I learned the basics and practiced sporadically at home, at awkward stress reduction sessions in middle school, and at one-off yoga classes in San Francisco that ended in self-satisfied “namastes” and the subsequent dissipation of any calmness I’d cultivated during the class. (If you know me, you know how much it riles me up to hear this out-of-place, inappropriate, mispronounced salutation being used to close a practice. As it turns out, I’m not the only one.)
I also had moderate success with YouTube yoga workouts – essentially workout videos with a few names of asanas sprinkled in. I figured it was an easy way to appease both my parents’ insistence that I give yoga a serious shot, and my own guilt about doing nothing remotely close to working out. When I was located too far from quality yoga classes or too broke to afford them, those videos would tide me over. But last year, I found this studio I adore with instructors that inspire me. Now, I’m finally able to commit to yoga – if only for a couple of hours a week.
There’s a reason I’ve come back to yoga again and again. And that’s because it’s given me a lot. I have always enjoyed the physicality of asanas. While some have helped me improve my balance (thank you, tree pose), others always give me an ego boost (my so-called “hyper-mobile torso” makes the cobra pose a breeze). Yet others are challenging enough to keep me from getting bored (one day, crow pose, one day). But lately, I’m finding that I’m learning even more from the principles that underscore yoga than yoga itself.
Take one of its central tenets: breath comes in, breath goes out. You never stop breathing, whether stretching, folding, balancing, or relaxing. This should be pretty obvious. Breathing is the easiest and most universal aspect of being a human. It is the only thing every one of us has done since the literal moment of our birth. Yet, we rarely engage with our breath intentionally in our daily lives. We don’t breathe enough when we’re crying; does anyone else remember being a kid and - mid-bawl - having that one terrifying moment of silence where your lungs were so empty you couldn’t cry for a second? We definitely don’t breathe frequently when we’re nervous (my voice always, always breaks a few sentences into a public speaking assignment when I’ve run out of oxygen from the one deep breath I took right before speaking). Even when we’re excited or happy, we forget to breathe – leading to high-pitched squeals and vocal-fry laden exclamations that are fun only for the person making them.
Yoga asks you to keep breathing, and with intention. You breathe in when you expand or are in a strenuous position, and you breathe out when you contract. The logic is pretty easy to follow. To get the most oxygen out of an inhalation, you want to make space for it in your lungs and the rest of your body. Opening up your chest and expanding your body is the way to do that. And your limbs need all that fresh oxygen and energy to be able to stretch in the first place - that’s going to come from a deeeep breath. This principle of breathing is intuitive.
It’s also powerful. In class, when in a forward bend, you’re told that with every exhalation, you’re supposed to relax your body a bit. With every inhalation, you have to try to reach forward just a little more. Each time you breathe in, you let new oxygen into your body, energizing and emboldening your muscles a little more. Inhalations are how you challenge yourself in yoga. Inhalations are where the magic happens.
I’ve seen the same thing happen outside of yoga. Like many people, my physiological response to anxiety is to make myself smaller. Without realizing it, I tense up my shoulders and scrunch up into myself, letting in only the shallowest of breaths. But as I’ve said before, muscle memory is a powerful thing. Ever since I started doing yoga more consistently, I’ve become better at noticing my mood, posture, and breathing. Now I find it easier to consciously catch myself when anxious. I’m more often able to straighten myself out and roll back my shoulders before inhaling deeply. It gets easier with each breath. My heart pounds against my chest just a tiny bit less, my feet feel a little more planted on the ground, and my hands relax just a smidge. With every round of breathing, I feel calmer, bolder, and lighter all at once.
Yoga also emphasises constant adjustment. Followers of YouTube guru Adriene Mishler love her classic refrain: “Find what feels good.” Similarly, instructors at my studio remind us to allow ourselves micro-movements as we work through the asanas. The idea is simple. Rather than aspiring to achieve a “perfect pose” and then clinging to a static notion of what that means, you have to constantly check in with your body and see what works for you. It doesn’t matter how flexible, strong, or experienced at yoga you are. Adjustment is crucial. As our body changes, so does our comfort level. So does our threshold for pain and strain. And anyway, even on a day-to-day basis, there are days we want to push ourselves and there are days we need some TLC. Yoga encourages you to modify your practice to what’s most intuitive, comfortable, and appropriate for where you’re at, no matter where you’re at on a given day.
I love this philosophy. My whole life has required me to adapt and change. It’s been amazing and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But at my age, I’m starting to feel the weight of the notion that what I do has to begin to lead towards something definite, that I have to start striving for “stability.” And because I’ve never known a life without change, this scares me. A sure-fire shortcut to existential panic is asking myself: Once I’ve “made it,” what will I work towards? Or: Will my life be static… and will I stop changing and growing? Or the scariest: Will I get bored? But yoga tells me no. Constant calibration is the crux of yoga. There’s no reason it can’t be the same for life. At some point I’ll be a millionaire who can jet set to an exotic new destination whenever I want in my own carbon-negative plane (wishful thinking). Even then, I can - and will - continue to learn and grow.
Yoga has a ton of other metaphors that make it the beautiful art form it is. Like the idea of proportion and having an internal system of checks and balances. In the plank pose, your wrists, elbows, and shoulders all have to be stacked in one vertical line. Similarly, when you’re in a wide squat, your second toes have to point in the same direction as your knees. These simple alignments help avoid injury and draw out the intended benefits of a pose. I think of them as reminders that our body knows what’s best for itself. We just have to pay attention to it.
Or consider asanas that emphasise balance. In a balancing bound angle pose, your feet lift upwards and outwards from a butterfly. To keep from toppling backwards, your feet have to actively push out and your hands have to actively pull them in. The opposing forces end up steadying each other, and you stay balanced. Just as in life, stability comes from honouring the different forces at play (provided they’re helping you, of course). Nothing works if it’s one-sided.
Another principle I like: in an ideal cycle of the surya namaskar, your hands remain planted in the same position on the ground from start to finish. While everything else moves, they alone stay right where they are, whether you’re moving into a plank, cobra, or mountain pose. They only shift when you rise at the end of the cycle and bend backwards with your arms outstretched, and when you finally bring your hands back to your heart’s centre. The notion is that your hands are your anchor, your reference point. Again, this also applies outside of yoga. The most important way to be consistent about something is to decide how you want to ground yourself, and then keep your focus firmly on that.
I’m grateful to my parents for bringing yoga into my life. It’s incredible just how much it has enriched it. In uncertain times like these, yoga is helping me stay afloat and move forward with at least a bit of courage and optimism. I feel stronger, calmer, more balanced, and more grounded. I’ve become more connected to my body, mind, and soul. I’m learning to breathe into anxiety and heaviness. I’m also learning to breathe out and fully let go, so I can embrace moments of lightness.
Of course, while I’m growing from my experience of yoga, I’m not quite “there” yet. I don’t perpetually wear a Buddhist-monk-level smile of serenity and inner peace. I still throw temper tantrums and I raise my voice and I cry about things that have zero consequence. I hardly ever meditate, I usually forget to try deep breathing when I can’t sleep, and I don’t even actually practice yoga nearly as much as I should.
But it’s okay. It will happen. I’m cherishing what I am doing and holding onto what I am learning. I’m reminding myself how far I’ve come, and how much I have yet to discover through yoga. Life keeps moving. And it gets better.
In the meantime, breath comes in, breath goes out.