Like many of my peers, I dabbled in yoga throughout my early twenties. The figure-flattering pants, colorful mats, intriguing Sanskrit chants, and post-class green smoothies made me feel much cooler than I actually was.
Needless to say, my sporadic yoga habit wasn’t born of an authentic desire to practice self-care or cultivate mind-body integration. My idea of exercise—when it wasn’t exhibitionist or self-aggrandizing—consisted of punitive slogs on the treadmill with an ever-watchful eye on the calorie monitor. I was a fair-weather friend when it came to my body, loving it only when it looked good in my skewed estimation (which was about 1 percent of the time), and otherwise despising it. It was unsurprising, then, that working out was not something I enjoyed, nor was it an expression of self-love or a desire for sustained health.
For years, I bumbled in and out of exercise routines, from half-marathon running to Pilates to a feeble attempt at Zumba. I occasionally floated into yoga classes, but frequently snuck out during savasana (much to the irritation of my classmates, who glowered at me as I clumsily tripped over their outstretched legs). I decided it wasn’t my thing, so I gave it up.
A few short years later, a season of stress and anxiety reawakened my curiosity about yoga. At this point, though, my interest had nothing to do with the cute pants or the mats or the green smoothies or the illusion of coolness: It was born out of a desire—a desperation, even—to emerge from my fog of stress and connect to a more intentional, grounded way of life.
My husband and I had just moved, and we lacked a gym membership—but I did have a mat, a laptop, and a burning desire to tap into something that would kick my stress to the curb, once and for all. On a whim, I googled “yoga for stress” and stumbled upon a Yoga with Adriene video.
I’d read about YWA in a previous Verily article but had never committed to a long-term yoga practice. YWA made this consistency incredibly accessible: The video I selected was shorter than thirty minutes, but even in that extremely short amount of time, I felt better.
Intrigued, I jumped on the YWA website and saw that it was a treasure trove of free yoga videos for every possible malady: yoga for anxiety, yoga for back and neck pain, yoga for sore muscles, and more. It was unbelievable how many resources were just a keystroke away. I was also astonished by how this whole yoga thing melted my stress in a way that running or high-intensity exercise never did. Before I could say “namaste,” I was hooked.
I did yoga the next day, and the next, and the next. Before I knew it, I had completed a sixty-day streak. And over time, as I descended my stress mountain, I realized that yoga did much, much more for me than taming an anxious mind.
01. Yoga transformed my self-image.
Like so many women, I frequently battle a negative self-image. While my inner body-shamer is not nearly as vicious as it was when I was in college, it still often rears its nasty head. But after a sustained period of daily yoga, I noticed that my inner critic’s biting remarks gradually stung less and less.
Unlike many other forms of exercise, which are largely focused on results (lose weight, tone a certain part of the body), yoga revolves around integration of the mind and the body—a union that is vital to mental health.
Yoga combines asanas, stretches or postures; pranayamas, breathing practices; and meditation. Although there are different schools that utilize one prong more than another, all yoga starts with an awareness of the breath, using the breath as a gateway by which we enter into the role of observer rather than critic. This focus on something so foundational to our wellbeing not only reduced my stress, but gently shifted my focus away from the size and shape of my body.
Harvard-trained psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of the acclaimed book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, lauds yoga as a restorative practice of uniting mind and body. “Our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection to our bodies,” he explains. “In yoga you focus your attention on your breathing and on your sensations moment to moment. You begin to notice the connection between your emotions and your body—perhaps how anxiety about doing a pose actually throws you off balance. You begin to experiment with changing the way you feel.”
Neurological researchers at Harvard have studied the ways meditation positively affects the areas of the brain that are critical to this physiological self-regulation. As Dr. Van der Kolk explains: “Simply noticing what you feel fosters emotional regulation, and it helps you to stop trying to ignore what is going on inside you. As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are, ‘Notice that’ and ‘what happens next?’ Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”
Unsurprisingly, as I turned to yoga to focus on uniting my body and mind, I saw my focus shift from a highly critical self-image to a more integrated, connected appreciation for my entire self: body, mind, and spirit as one integrated, beautiful, self-aware whole.
02. Yoga improved my focus.
Like many women, I tend to focus on fifteen different thoughts or tasks at any given moment. This is hard to avoid when so many things vie for our attention, from buzzing phones to the click of a new email landing in our inboxes. But on the yoga mat, we have one job and one job only: to move fluidly from one pose to the next, guided by the breath.
Adriene of YWA encourages her students to “move from a place of connect,” that is, to resist the urge to rush through the yoga practice, but instead, with each movement, to breathe, tap into the core, and carefully strengthen and observe each part of the body. The same focus and attention I’ve learned to cultivate on the mat has traveled with me off the mat, enriching all parts of my life by encouraging me to remain present.
03. Yoga was my vehicle for self-love, self-care, and gratitude.
The messaging throughout yoga classes is rich with love, acceptance, and gratitude. These are principles that, once again, travel with us off the mat. When I spend my yoga practice appreciating my body for what it can do, I later tap into that same gratitude when spending time with my favorite people or doing work that I love.
Indeed, there is something about the self-awareness and connection I experience in a yoga class that translates to a heightened sensory awareness and gratitude in day-to-day life. I notice myself appreciating small details—a beautiful flower, the smell of cooking garlic, an extra blue sky, a soft fabric, a rich coffee flavor—rather than blowing right past them in my haste to get to the next thing, the next thing, the next thing.
Find your yoga.
Yoga is not a panacea. Nothing is. I’ve never subscribed to the notion that a single practice or discipline will cure all ills, and I still don’t. But the way I’ve used yoga in this particular season to reduce my stress level, transform my self-image, and step into a more balanced lifestyle has made me a fierce proponent of finding a unique vehicle for self-improvement. It won’t be yoga for everyone. Maybe your yoga is running. Or hiking. Or reading. Whatever it is, find it, do it, and commit to it. Whether it involves a mat or a pair of shoes, a well-worn cover or an uncharted trail, what matters most is that you open your mind and heart to the joy of radical transformation.