I’ve owned several variations of a small swiss army knife over the years that I use it mainly on backpacking and camping trips. My current one is bright yellow and includes a little knife, folding scissors, a nail file, and a pair of tweezers — all handy things to have on a backpacking trip. Ashtanga yoga is kind of like a swiss army knife, or one those multi-tools with a choice of different knives, and scissors, and screwdrivers, each one of which can be used for multiple purposes. Although the practice sometimes is criticized as being rigid (usually by people who don’t actually do the practice or who haven’t been doing it for very long), the truth is we have a lot of choices about how we the multi-tool that Ashtanga yoga is.
Classical reasons for practice
Classical texts like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras or the Hatha Yoga Pradipika are written from the perspective that our reason for practicing is personal evolution and spiritual transformation — in simpler language: becoming a better human. But, like any set of tools, we can use them effectively for lots of things they weren’t originally intended for. From the perspective of classical yoga texts, the physical health and wellness benefits that we experience from doing a regular yoga practice are just side benefits on the road to being a better human.
The side benefits
But those “side benefits” can really add a lot of value to day to day life. And personally, I find it easier to be more patient, kinder, and more aware, when my body is healthy and it isn’t distracting me with too many mundane aches and pains. We are all embodied beings. So, how we feel in our body is often reflected in how we are in the world.
There are no right answers to the question of why you practice yoga. Most likely, if you stick with a yoga practice over some years, your reasons for continuing to practice won’t be the same as the reasons that you started practicing anyway. But, as we slowly begin a phased re-opening of the studio and you have more opportunities to lean into a yoga practice again with community support and a teacher offering direction, I invite you to give some thought to your “why”. Why do you practice yoga? Why you practice yoga will determine which tools you need and dictate how you use them. So give your “why” some consideration.
Why I practice yoga
Personally my “why” has changed many times over the years. When I first started yoga I was looking for something to add physical strength and stability in my body. As I got deeper into practice I recognized that how I felt physically was reflected in my mental and emotional landscape. When I was steadier in my body, I was also steadier in my life. The reasons I continued to practice evolved. I kept practicing because I found challenging my body to be empowering. I found yoga to be the most useful tool I had encountered for making my nervous system more resilient.
Currently, my practice is a safe space for metabolizing all the input from each day. It’s a place where I can take time to be aware of subtler thoughts, feelings, and my general state of mind in a more intentional way than when I am engaged with work during the rest of the day. I use the yoga practice to continually refine the steadiness of my nervous system. I also use my yoga practice for simpler purposes, like maintaining a more balanced body structure. It’s a great tool for realigning things in my body after doing sports like running, cycling, hiking, dancing, etc. One of the many great things about the multi-tool that is Ashtanga yoga, is that I can do yoga for many different reasons all at the same time!
Endless reasons for why you might practice yoga
There are an endless number of reasons why you might take up a yoga practice. And, there is an equal amount of variety in the ways that you might use it. On my little yellow pocketknife, the option that I use most often is actually the nail file. But, I’ve never once used it to file my nails. I use it frequently for turning the screw that opens my bear canister, where I store food to keep it safe from the hungry black bears. And like a handy little pocketknife, Ashtanga is a pretty versatile multi-tool. Some days you need the knife, some days it’s the scissors, some days you really need a pair of tweezers.