What is yoga for?

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“Yoga is not about self-improvement, it’s about self-acceptance “~ Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa

A lot writing about and promotion of yoga focuses on using it for self-improvement. Lose weight. Tone your core. Become more flexible. Become radiant. Stop feeling stressed.

However, these all tempt us with a promise of future happiness. This has the effect of keeping us in a state of constant dissatisfaction with ourselves and our lives as they are now.

But my experience of yoga – and one of the reasons I teach it – is that yoga can teach us self-acceptance; to accept ourselves just as we are now; to understand that we have inside us already all we need to experience contentment.

Move your body – understand your mind

Our physical yoga practice helps us to re-connect to our bodies, enabling us to understand how we move; connecting us to the miracle of engineering that is our human body. We can learn how to look after our bodies – and to listen to our body’s innate wisdom.

We may begin to test our perceptions of our physical limitations or we may choose to stay within those boundaries.

We may begin to discover those physical restrictions are tied up with self-limiting thought patterns, and that’s fine. We all have them. Seeing these patterns and them accepting them as being part of our present reality is one of the bravest things we can do.

Of course, the temptation is to judge, but if we can learn to notice and accept our body and mind, that will contribute deeply to our sense of wellbeing.

Learn to press “pause”

Yoga also helps us to re-connect with our breath. And as we do so, we can begin to experience how our breath is our friend. Learning to connect with and control our breath, through yoga Pranayama techniques, can affect how our bodies feel by making us feel lighter and more expansive.

Also, our breath can give us something to focus our attention on to help us step back from the noise of our busy minds. And in stepping back we can begin to observe our thoughts – jumping around like chattering monkeys. And as we observe we can bring a gentle self-acceptance to the mind.

We can pause the struggle and find space just to be. We don’t have to change anything. We can find peace by accepting whatever arises, whether in our yoga practice or in every day life.

Peeling away the layers

In this way, our yoga practice helps us to peel back the layers of experiences which have taught us negative lessons.

For example, shedding repetitive and negative thoughts such as “I can’t do this…”; “I’m not good enough”; “I’m overweight / too thin / not attractive”; “I’m not flexible”; “I have a bad back, it’s not safe for me to move”; “I don’t have any energy” and so on.

We can peel back through different layers to find the deeper reasons for behaviours and thought patterns.

For example, we may tell ourselves “I can’t do forward bends because I have a bad back”. And maybe that was useful for you when you first experienced back pain. But is it still true? Is the thought stopping your body from moving? Is the thought stopping you from testing yourself? Is this playing out in other parts of your life? Do you find that you limit trying new experiences for fear of re-experiencing old pains?

Or we may tell ourselves “I’m not good enough”. For what? For whom? Who gave you the message you’re not good enough in the first place? Do you really value their opinion if that’s the negative message they give you? (Particularly where the message is coming from the media and advertisers where it’s only in the interest of their owners and shareholders to keep you feeling bad about yourself!)

Get interested, and ask yourself these questions – without fear, and without judgment.

Learn compassion

As we answer these questions and peel back layers of understanding this can lead to a compassionate understanding.

For example, you may gently let yourself bend a little further to see what you’re capable of. And in doing so, you may find you’re not as inflexible as you’d been telling yourself (millimetres are miles in yoga practice). This may lead you to let yourself try other new things.

You may accept yourself and come to know that we are all “good enough”.

And in understanding ourselves better and showing ourselves compassion, we are more capable of understanding others and showing them the same patience and compassion.

As we peel back layers and begin to understand our motivations and behaviours more, we may come to a point where we realize that all has been as it should be. Every experience in life, whether deemed pleasant or unpleasant, has helped us to learn; to bring us to this present moment.

We can drop the constant search for happiness and the striving to become something else.

Swami Satchidananda, in his commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras quotes ancient scriptures which tell of the musk deer which has a scented spot above its forehead that gives off a beguiling musk fragrance. This deer runs here and there in search of the scent, not knowing the scent comes from its own forehead.

We’re like the musk deer – searching and yearning for happiness in material goods, or looking to others for validation. While all along, we have the contentment and peace we crave available inside us all the time.

By practising yoga, relaxation and meditation we can still the mind and connect to our innate happiness.

Letting go to move on

But in accepting this moment, accepting our body, mind and emotions as they are now, lies a paradox.

Once we accept ourselves just as we are, we may well begin to discover that we’re capable of more than we realized. Once we drop our self-judging and just notice what is, we can free our energy up to move forward, if we wish.

When we stop struggling, and accept ourselves and our lives just as we are, that is when we are capable of the greatest transformation.

We shed the scales from our eyes and limiting beliefs no longer hold us back. We can do and be whatever we want, as we realize the capability was always there.

We become one with ourselves. We see the connection between all of us.

With an open, questioning mind and a loving heart, we know that we are doing just fine.


Stella Tomlinson teaches Dru yoga in Southampton, UK. Dru yoga is an accessible and therapeutic style of yoga, characterised by flowing movements, directed breathing, relaxation techniques and working with affirmations and visualisations. Connect with Stella via Facebook and Twitter.

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