While putting together Firefly's latest service offerings for beginner yogis, I thought about my own introduction to yoga. I was a reluctant yoga practitioner all of those years ago. I had fiddled with yoga a bit on my Nintendo Wii, and had gone to one Bikram class with a co-worker (which did not cause me to come running back). It wasn't until I had knee surgery, when I couldn't do any of my usual forms of exercise for nine months, that I turned to yoga out of desperation to move my body. Even then, I didn't embrace it with open arms, but rather with skepticism and resistance.
Signing up for private classes with a local teacher, who quickly became my friend, was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and has ultimately altered the course of my life. I laughed, I cried, and I nurtured my poor knee (and hips, neck, back, and shoulders - all areas that were tight from my work and play), and I settled my over-active mind - at least while I was in the yoga room.
I fell in love. Yoga saved me in a way. Similar to what I know now about the koshas (layers of the self), yoga was a tool to get to know myself in a new way, starting with the physical body (annamaya kosha). After all, that's what had brought me to yoga in the first place - the need to heal my body. And it worked. I grew stronger, more flexible, improved my posture and balance, and recovered more quickly after running and biking by having yoga as part of my routine.
Perhaps one of the biggest benefits I experienced early on in my yoga practice was learning how to breathe. For the first time I had a way to connect with my breath (my energy body - pranamaya kosha). I had always had a short and shallow breath that made exerting myself in exercise like running and hiking turn my face beet-red. Through yoga I tapped into a deeper way of breathing that not only supported my athletic endeavors, but also rescued me from bouts of fight-or-flight reactions to stressors at work and at home.
The form of yoga that I most resisted at first, but has become my favorite over time (and the one that I think most everyone can benefit from in our society) is yin yoga. Yin involves holding stretches for three to five minutes to work with the connective tissue (things like fascia, ligaments and tendons). The side effect is tapping into the third layer of self - the mind (manamaya kosha) As someone with an over-active monkey-mind, it was challenging to stay in postures for that long without my mind running wild. However, without this opportunity to slow down and sit with my thoughts in this new way, it would have been difficult to tap into the messages of what I needed to let go of, and what I needed to make more space for in my life.
It wasn't that long after I started practicing yoga that my friend, Stephanie, convinced me to go on a yoga retreat with her in Costa Rica. At the time, I looked at it as a great opportunity to explore Costa Rica without having to put a lot of my time and research into it, and there would be yoga too.
I had no idea what I was in for when I stepped off the plane. The yoga classes peeled back yet another layer. There's something about stepping out of your day-to-day life with all of it's routines and responsibilities, and into a place with an energy like Costa Rica. All of that "stuff" that you either thought you had already dealt with, didn't know was there, or thought you had buried deep enough that it didn't stand a chance of resurfacing - is all brought out into the light when you dive deep into yoga - particularly while on retreat in a safe space surrounded by a mix of friends and strangers who are just as vulnerable and curious as you are, and as a result, support you through this process of tapping into the wisdom body (vijnanamaya kosha).
Each time I go on a retreat as a participant, take an in-depth yoga teacher training, or return to Costa Rica or elsewhere to lead a retreat, I learn something new about myself. I tap into a deeper place that allows me to face my shadows, and intensify my light. I return home a little brighter, more sure of my place in this world, and better able to have that occasional experience of tapping into the fifth and final layer - the bliss body (anandamaya kosha). I'm best able to access this layer when I drop deep into meditation, or an activity that I love. I feel a sense of flow, of ease rather than struggle, and I feel more connected to something greater.
Yoga has given me these gifts, and now it is my life's path to share yoga with others. Maybe not everyone will dive deep into all five layers of self with yoga, but even if it is one, two or three layers, there is benefit in that. Yoga teaches us about ourselves in a way that most forms of exercise do not. Share your own experience with yoga with us online - either by commenting below or via social media.