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The surest sign that I’ve gone too long without practicing yoga has nothing to do with my physical self. Sure, there are the usual physical signs – I feel my posture slumping, my joints stiffening, and my breath gets shallow – but most of all, I find myself with a pervasive sense of ungratefulness.

I have a lot of things to be grateful for. From the big things, like a rewarding career and supportive relationships, to the small things like good coffee and a comfortable bed. Most days I’m thankful that I get to do everything I do. But without yoga, my opportunities seem to sour into obligations. How can moving on a mat for one hour fundamentally change my life?

When most people think of yoga, they might imagine the type of class that has become so popular in the West – think flowing movements in a room full of sweaty people – but its roots run much deeper. While yoga itself is an ancient and deeply spiritual practice derived from India, it is founded on universal human principles that anyone can use to improve their life. There are eight “limbs” of yoga, only one of which has to do with the physical postures. The other limbs have to do with breathwork, spiritual practices, and guidelines for living ethically.

Do you have to subscribe to these ethical teachings and pour over philosophical texts to benefit from yoga? Not necessarily. As T.K.V. Desikachar writes in the seminal work The Heart of Yoga, “We take the first step by observing the breath and body. We do this over and over again, hoping that we will with time develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and our current state.” 

That’s certainly how I began. I liked the physical challenge of yoga, the cathartic feeling of sweat dripping on my mat, and the mental strength it took to hold a pose despite my whole body shaking. I didn’t know anything about yogic philosophy. All I knew was that every time I showed up for practice, the torrent of my thoughts calmed for a while and my next steps were a bit clearer.

One of the central aims of the yoga practice is to remove “avidyā”, the false perceptions that cloud our mind as a result of our habitual, mindless patterns of behavior. Over time these thoughts accumulate and crystallize into a narrative about ourselves, called “sam skāra”. When I first started practicing yoga, I was shocked at how negative the voice inside my head could be. I would never talk to someone else the way I spoke to myself. This type of chatter runs constantly in most people’s minds, and we rarely find the time to silence it.

Yoga shakes you up and then allows everything to settle. At the end of class, when the teacher brings you up from savasana (the final resting pose), you find yourself in a dreamlike euphoria. Your body moves unhurriedly and your mind quietly reorients itself to the waking world. My first yoga teacher would invite us at this time to spend a moment in gratitude to ourselves – for showing up, for putting in physical effort, for simply being in a body that can move and breathe.

While my teacher couldn’t have known it, those brief moments of gratitude changed everything for me. They began a repatterning of my internal dialogue. A chipping away at the sam skāra, the negative stories I had been telling myself for years. This was more than just wishful thinking; MRI studies have shown that yoga can literally change your brain. Yogis have thicker cerebral cortexes and hippocampi, regions associated with information processing, learning, and memory. As I practiced gratitude, my brain was forming new connections to make it easier each time. A sort of kindness and appreciation for myself was becoming hardwired.

Yoga and meditation have also been shown to reduce activity in the limbic system, the brain region associated with emotion and behavior. I relate this most closely to the yogic principle of balancing “stira” and “sukha”, meaning effort and ease respectively. By seeking ease even while performing difficult physical postures, we can more easily find ease whenever life is difficult. The goal of this work is a sense of equanimity of non-reactivity when previously we might have been swept away with the current of our emotions.

In yogic philosophy there are five “niyamas”, attitudes we are encouraged to adopt towards ourselves. One of these is “santosha”, which basically means being content with what we have and accepting things as they are. I don’t think this comes easily for any of us. We are in a constant state of comparison with others, and happiness is sold to us everywhere we look. The more yoga I do, the more I accept myself without reservation.

Gratitude, like yoga, is a practice. We must work at it before it feels natural. I close every class I teach with the same invitation for a moment of gratitude because I truly believe that it can change everything. 

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