Life Lessons From My Yoga Mat

Marija Murdzoska
7 min readNov 9, 2020

It’s a lot more than just touching your toes.

Photo by madison lavern on Unsplash

I probably took my first yoga class around age 16, but I was 19 and in college when I really got into it and began practicing with some consistency. I’d had a little taste of that “yoga high” and I became addicted.

Prior to picking up this practice, I hadn’t really found any pastime or activity I connected with, besides maybe journaling. So I began taking more and more classes as the college years went on- as part of our campus’ Yoga Club, at the university gym, and I even took a for-credit class about yoga asana one year. I then did my 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training right out of college.

I was 22 at this point and pretty much felt like a yoga master. I was doing crazy backbends and arm balances and posting plenty of holier-than-thou captions with these advanced asana pictures I’d post to my Instagram.

Don’t get me wrong- I have no issue with people sharing their practice online or posting a nice inspirational quote along with it. I do, however, have an issue with the image of myself I was portraying; I was a total ball of anxiety, but a lot of my posts made it seem like I was completely zen 24/7.

Getting a little older showed me the value in being vulnerable and genuine rather than creating a false image of myself. I’m still learning just how much easier it is to connect with others when you share your struggles than it is when you’re pretending life is carefree and void of problems.

In addition to this big lesson that I’m still learning, yoga has taught me so much more than how to breathe or stretch more deeply. The lessons I’ve picked up through this practice have greatly improved my quality of life.

Lesson 1: Show Yourself Compassion

Embarking on a yoga asana practice is (hopefully) a humbling experience. In any given class you may be surrounded by practitioners who are at a more “advanced” level than you, and you must quickly learn to keep your eyes on your own mat because it’s the only one that matters.

You may struggle with your balance and fall out of certain poses some days. You may be confronted with seemingly “basic” postures that your body just doesn’t seem to want to do. But you keep showing up anyway, because you know the benefits outweigh the hardships, and the hardships will only make you a better practitioner.

Many yoga instructors will guide their students at the end of class to thank themselves for having practiced that day, and I think this is a fantastic approach to life in general. There’s a reason they don’t say, “Thank yourself for getting into that advanced posture.” It doesn’t matter what you were or were not physically able to do; it matters that you showed up and tried. I think a lot of us would feel much happier if we simply thanked ourselves for showing up and trying in life, rather than being hard on ourselves for what we haven’t been able to do.

When we learn to show ourselves compassion, it can make it much easier to show compassion for others. We can acknowledge that not everyone is in the same place in their journey through life, and we can meet them where they are rather than where we think they should be.

Lesson 2: Listen to Your Body

If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you’ve probably heard this instruction. I myself probably heard it hundreds of times before I finally started to understand what it meant. In my experience of “listening to my body,” it really comes down to doing what your physical body wants you to do instead of what your mind or your ego want you to do.

How do you tell the difference? For me, it took a few minor injuries to really start taking this advice seriously. When your body is basically screaming at you in pain, you don’t have much of a choice but to listen.

First it was an ongoing hamstring issue that really required me to be conscious and engage the right muscles when doing any hamstring stretches, otherwise I would’ve done more damage. More recently I’ve had persistent trouble with my wrists being extremely tight and not very strong. Yoga can be very upper-body heavy, and many postures require you to hold most (or all) of your body weight in these tiny little joints.

I used to power through the wrist pain, but lately I’ve been taking it much easier when I practice and staying off of my wrists the moment they begin to feel sore. My mind and ego want me to do countless vinyasa sequences, but my body won’t allow it, so I don’t do them.

How do you listen to your body if you’re not in pain? This one isn’t quite as obvious and takes some more practice. I find that tuning into my breathing is a good way to turn off my mind long enough to feel what my body needs. I use this approach a lot when doing my home practice and trying to decide which poses I want to include that day. I can feel where in my body I’m feeling extra tight, and I let that guide me.

This lesson directly translates to real life for me, because it allows me to observe what’s happening inside my body when I’m confronted with certain situations. For example, when I’m making an important decision and have to weigh two options, I can think about the two all I want, but what really helps me decide is feeling which choice I resonate with more. Thinking about one choice may produce a more anxious reaction in my body, while the other may make me feel more excited. We know there’s a big difference between those two feelings, but we need to pay attention to recognize it.

We sometimes unknowingly employ this approach when meeting new people. We’ve all met people who, for whatever reason, we don’t really like or want to be around. Maybe their presence gives you a feeling of danger or uncertainty.

Even if this person has never done anything particularly “bad” that you know of, you can still get a bad feeling from them, and chances are you want to avoid them and that feeling as much as possible. This is listening to your body, and it’s a skill I’ve watched grow exponentially in myself since starting a yoga practice.

Photo by Zen Bear Yoga on Unsplash

Lesson 3: Not Every Path is Linear

I think my experience with handstands (or Adho Mukha Vrksasana) most accurately illustrates this. About four or five years ago, I was regularly practicing handstands whenever I did yoga. My success still depended on the day, but more often than not I was able to at least catch a little bit of air time.

In the last couple of years, however, my practice has been much more focused on the basics of yoga and how I can safely build up strength and flexibility. I almost never throw in a handstand attempt anymore, and I’m sure that if I did, I’d have some trouble with it. I could get down on myself for this, but what good would that do?

I know that if getting good at handstands becomes one of my big goals in life, I’ll accomplish it. But right now I have other things I’m focusing on, and that’s okay. There are quite a few poses that used to come easily to me that I’d probably struggle with if I tried them today, but there are other things I would’ve struggled with in the past that now come easily to me.

Different things take priority at different times in our lives, and that’s not only okay but necessary. This means that we physically cannot improve consistently at every single little thing we’ve ever tried, and there’s no reason to expect to.

I think we’re all collectively learning this lesson this year because of the pandemic. We all had plans for this year that most likely did not come to fruition, and we just have to learn to accept that. Sometimes there are things outside our control that knock us off our intended path. However, we can still achieve our goals even if we were forced to delay them by a year (or two? Stay tuned). If we can’t, we can make new goals.

While a yoga practice is certainly not the only place to learn these lessons, I find it to be a very gentle place to do so. Yoga can be very subtle in its teachings, and sometimes you only realize what you’ve learned by looking back and reflecting. The postures you’re intentionally learning can lead to some big unintended lessons, and these lessons can lead to a whole lot of growth.

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