By some quirk of fate, 50 years ago, I stumbled across a yoga class being offered at my local art museum. (There were no yoga studios then.) My teacher offered a very gentle form of postural yoga, as well as a Sunday service where he would read from Paramahansa Yogananda’s Sunday Service lectures and then lead us in meditation. Nothing could keep me from attending the yoga class or the Sunday service, where I learned about and experienced the healing power of self-love, self-care and self-realization. Yoga helped heal my body, mind, heart, and spirit over five decades ago. I have been practicing it ever since.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my yoga teacher was regarded as one of Yogananda’s foremost disciples; I was being introduced to yoga by the teachings of a master. He gave us Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi to read as homework, and we were instructed to practice asana and pranayama on our own in between our weekly class. Becoming grounded in a personal home practice from the very beginning turned out to be a blessing. It required commitment, and helped me cultivate a level of discipline that made me both physically and emotionally strong and more inner directed.
You see, yoga is a pathway towards personal transformation. First it transforms us physically, increasing balance and flexibility. Then it begins to change us mentally and emotionally by slowing our mind and calming our emotions. It helps us think more clearly, trust our intuitive abilities, and listen to ourselves and to others at deep and subtle levels. It strengthens resilience and gives us the courage to be truthful and honest in a compassionate way. Most importantly, it expands our capacity for self-love and self-acceptance. Yoga is a path to self-discovery that leads us into direct contact with our spirituality.
Here’s another amazing thing about yoga—regardless of why you start practicing or where you practice, whether it’s for physical health and vitality or spiritual enlightenment: If you stay with it long enough, you begin to rediscover your inner connectedness to something greater than yourself. Some call it God. Others call it the Universe or Truth or Spirit. Whatever you call it, it is an ideal that lifts you beyond your everyday struggles and helps you clarify, reflect upon and understand life from a deeper perspective and to live it more artfully. It doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs or affiliations are. By connecting to this higher state of consciousness, you begin to connect to values that express your internal truth. That connection allows you to create meaning for yourself and to make sense of your experiences.
Yoga takes you into your own heart and opens you to tenderness toward yourself and others, teaching you to love yourself and everyone else, warts and all. It teaches you to understand human nature through understanding yourself. In yoga we call that self-study, svadhyaya. It teaches us that we do not see the world as it is; we see it as we are and that motivates us to want to be our best selves. In this way, yoga is a subversive practice; it changes us, but it changes us subtly, bit by bit, and from the inside out so that, over time, we become who we were born to be.
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A psychologist and a certified yoga therapist, Gail Parker has been practicing yoga for 50 years and teaching it for 20. She is the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma. She became the President of the BYTA Board of Directors in 2020.