Aesthetic to Asana: How I Discovered the True Benefits of Yoga

“Yoga? Isn’t that the new fad where skinny blonde women run around with rolled-up mats?”

That’s what my dad told me when I broke the news to him that his daughter was going to use her UCSD education to become a full-time yoga instructor. I had to admit that simply from looking at social media and at the cover of Yoga Journal magazine, I could tell why my dad’s first thought of yoga was not about meditation, or moving the breath through the body.

And while yoga is a practice of self-transformation and growth, it is often sold as a product. And the product of yoga is slim, sexy, athletic bodies. I would love to say that from the start I understood yoga deeply and had a very internal and profound yoga practice, but that just wouldn’t be true.

The Yoga Myth I Believed

It has taken me a long time to admit this to myself. One of the reasons I first wanted to get into teaching yoga was because it looked so damn cool. All these young teachers (who were not all blonde, but admittedly many skinny and female) looked like they had the most amazing lives and I was in love with the idea that I could make money while simultaneously working on a bangin’ body  and the path to enlightenment.

It looked perfect. I’ve always been a people person, and I love getting my sweat on, so I knew teaching yoga was definitely something I could do. I thought, Does it get any better than that? Who wouldn’t want to be the face—well, more like the body—of hotness and wisdom all rolled up into one?

The Benefits of Yoga: From External to Internal

In my sophomore year in college, I enrolled in a 2-year yoga teacher training program. While it was a rigorous program that included much yoga philosophy and meditation, I continued to focus on yoga as a physical practice, and one that had a large amount of flashiness involved in it at that.

Before long, I was teaching weekly yoga classes that incorporated all types of crazy inversions and difficult poses. I loved demonstrating poses and encouraging students to push their bodies to do things they had never done before.

I loved pushing my body to new limits, too, and had this idea that the further I pushed my body, the more I was “growing” and improving in my practice. I thought that the more I explored the crazy pretzel posture of the physical practice, the more I was becoming enlightened and in tune with the best version of myself. What’s more, I encouraged my students to view the practice in the same light.

In my mind, the physical practice was the practice.

But then one day I was doing an inversion-heavy practice and my wrists started to hurt. I had a hard time even doing Downdog. My life as a yoga teacher began to flash before my eyes:

What if I could no longer do the shock and awe poses? What type of yoga instructor would I be? What type of yogi would I be? Was this the end of my journey to enlightenment?

At that moment I was terrified—and over time I began to see that it was in that moment that my true relationship with the yoga practice had begun. Ever since that day, I teach and practice yoga really differently. 

My New Relationship With Yoga

I went and took another yoga teacher training. This time, I spent more time focusing on what yoga really means.

The word yoga can be roughly translated as “union,” and the practice of yoga is one of unifying our personal experience with truth. This seems heady, but really all it means is taking time to see things for what they really are, see ourselves for who we really are, and to live and act accordingly.

Most of the time we live from inside a headspace of expectation. We create a narrative for ourselves (i.e. I am a yoga teacher so therefore I have to do Handstands all the time) that takes away our freedom to acknowledge and express how we really feel out of fear of not living up to our own or others’ expectations of us.

The thing about expectation is that it’s imaginary, it’s not real. We then begin to sacrifice our reality, our truth, for the hope of living up to some image, something that in its essence can never really harmonize with our true selves. We choose, sometimes unconsciously, to sacrifice a healthy relationship with ourselves in order to appear a certain way.

Living this way is disempowering.

It’s suffocating.

It makes us feel like who is isn’t as good as some ideal.

Fighting the Ideal, Accepting the Real

We can never live up to them, no matter how hard we try. Sometimes I look back at pictures of myself doing advanced yoga postures and I think about how strong I looked, or how sexy I felt. Even now, I am sometimes captivated by these images and they make me feel lesser as if now I am not as good of a yogi.

I have to remind myself that my yoga practice as it is now is equally as perfect because it is exactly what I need at this moment in time. The truth is things change, that’s the nature of being alive.

Our lives don’t happen in still frames, they happen in dynamic movement. And it’s the movement that brings the bliss and beauty, the living of this life, the being authentic that makes life so amazing. 

For years, I had been trying to fit the image of being a yoga teacher without actually practicing or teaching true yoga. I was encouraging students to practice in a way that would push their bodies rather than honor it. I was telling people to focus on getting into a specific shape or pose, rather than encouraging them to move in a way that allowed them to unite their breath and body in a space of empowerment.

Needless to say, I don’t teach that way anymore. While I still teach inversions and difficult poses, these are never the point. The point of teaching yoga, for me, is to open the door for my students to notice how their body interacts with their breath, mind, and heart.

It’s not so much a teaching, to me, as it is holding space for us all to notice how we think, how we move, how we feel, and how all these things interact. My classes are just as much an opportunity for me to inquire into what authenticity feels like, what truth feels like, what compassion feels like, as it is for my students.

Sometimes, I’m authentically feeling strong and I want to flirt with my notions of what is or isn’t possible, so I try on a new advanced pose. Other days, my yoga practice feels softer with lots of Child’s Pose because I’ve had a long week and I need to rest and be gentle with myself.

Free Yourself With Yoga

What I’ve come to realize is that yoga is about freeing yourself from any preconceptions or expectations of how things should be.

There’s no should—there can’t be. It Should is for the ideal realm that doesn’t exist; that always has the right angle, the right lighting, that never feels bloated or has an injury.

Real living, breathing truth just is. And it’s perfect that way.

The perfect yoga practice is not the one that has the most challenging poses but the one that honors and expresses how I really feel.

The most beautiful part of it is this: when I feel united with my truth, I feel at home. I feel powerful and sexy and perfect, even if my body doesn’t gracefully fit into some advanced pose.

I still have days where I look in the mirror and compare myself to the skinny blonde woman next to me who is perfectly flexible. I honor that her practice is her practice, and that is yoga, and my practice is my practice, and that is also yoga. Whatever I look like when I am breathing fully into my body, focusing my mind, and moving with intention, that is exactly what the practice “should” look like, because that’s what my practice is.