Psst … Is your jaw clenched right now?
Most people who start yoga are seeking the most obvious health benefits of yoga—increasing flexibility, gaining strength, and simply getting in those recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week.
However, many yogis are surprised to find a myriad of ways that yoga positively influences their life, beyond their physique. After all, yoga isn’t simply a workout style; it’s a practice in mindfulness, and for many people, it works as an alternative to traditional meditation.
Yoga teaches you a number of lessons that you can apply to all of life’s challenges, helping you prevent burnout at work or road rage on your commute (and that’s just the beginning).
We asked yoga teachers and practitioners what they’ve learned from practicing yoga that has helped improve their life off the mat, and they had *a lot* to say.
1. Stop the Judgment
It’s tempting to spend your first yoga class judging your performance against everyone else’s. As the teacher calls downward dog a “resting pose,” you find your arms screaming underneath of you and your calves begging to give up.
In those moments, it’s easy to be hard on yourself—but yoga can quickly train you out of that kind of thinking. “When some part of you feels fatigued, exhausted, overwhelmed, or like it’s going to give out, that’s okay,” says Brice LaGrand, who started yoga 12 years ago.
The struggle is part of the process, and finding a pose challenging in the beginning is natural and expected. “That permission to allow myself to feel certain sensations has meant a world of difference to me. I no longer judge myself for losing my grip on perfect, perpetual positivity,” says LaGrand.
2. Appreciate Yourself
Any exercise can help you become stronger and leaner, but there’s something special about yoga that really boosts your body confidence. The poses literally feel empowering; they have names like “goddess pose” and “warrior pose,” after all. (Check out this 10-minute yoga routine that’s packed with warrior poses.)
“Yoga has helped me cultivate confidence in my body,” says Frank J. Sileo, PhD, psychologist, yogi, and author. “It’s fine that I’m not the most agile yoga practitioner. I focused on what my body could do instead of what I couldn’t do. I stopped the self-deprecation of my body not being like others … I have a lot of respect for my body as a result of yoga practice.”
3. Remember to Breathe
“In yoga, each pose and vinyasa is led with breath cues—each breath leads a movement. Similarly, when holding a challenging pose, the breath becomes the guide for staying with it,” says Julia Kelley, yoga teacher and intuitive coach.
Many beginner yogis will hold their breath (without realizing it) when faced with a difficult pose. It’s a natural reaction to being in an uncomfortable situation. Over time, you learn to keep breathing—and that holding your breath won’t make that pose any easier.
Turns out, breathing through distress works beyond the mat. “This has fully overflowed into my life: When I notice myself becoming stressed, upset, or angry, I use breath to guide me back to stillness,” says Kelley.
Next time you’re enduring turbulence at 35,000 feet, or driving on a crowded highway (and the person behind you is *definitely* texting while driving), don’t forget to keep breathing.
4. Release the Tension
If you’re a chronically stressed person, you’ve likely been told on numerous occasions to “just relax.” Easier said than done, right? Yoga is actually perfect for helping you become more aware of your body, where you are holding tension (probably the shoulders and jaw), and how to let that tension go.
When holding a yoga pose, in order to deepen the pose and stay in it, you must release and surrender into the pose,” says Kelley. “If you focus on the tension you won’t be able to hold the pose for long.”
To counter this tendency, yoga teachers will often remind you to loosen up your shoulders once you’ve found your warrior 2 pose, or let your neck dangle once you’re in forward fold.
“Taking this into life, I have learned that when something becomes ‘tense,’ instead of clenching my fists and approaching it with mutual tension, if I release, relax, and surrender instead, the tension dissipates,” says Kelley.
5. Lose the Ego
You see the person next to you with their palms flat on the floor during forward fold, while you can’t even touch your toes. For beginner yogis, that urge to lock your knees and force your fingers closer to your toes—and fight the pain—is strong.
“So many times, we try to do a posture out of ego,” says Tehzeeb Lalani, yoga practitioner of three years. Lalani says trying to stretch more deeply than your body can handle is the most quintessential example of ego in yoga, and life offers similar moments when you have to find the balance between challenging yourself and putting your mind or body in harm’s way.
“Yoga has taught me to shed my ego and accept the limitations of my body while acknowledging and being grateful for what it is capable of doing,” says Lalani.
6. Be Interoceptive
“Yoga has increased my ability to be interoceptively aware,” says Stacy Dockins, author, meditation educator, and yoga teacher of 25 years. Dockins defines interoception as “being aware of internal sensations” and says it helps improve your ability to “self-regulate and make choices that support a positive impact on mental and physical health.”
Says Dockins, “Paying attention to breath, muscles engaging, soft tissues releasing, and joints interacting cultivates one’s ability to mentally map their moment-to-moment experience.” When you have this somatic awareness, you’re better able to intervene and make positive choices when you feel your body or mind going awry.
For example, if you’re interoceptively aware of your shoulders tensing up during a work meeting that’s getting heated, you can help your body loosen up and breathe—allowing you to shake off that stress and preserve your mental health, which can in turn impact your physical health. (Here are ways anxiety can mess with your physical health.)
7. Set an Intention
Many yoga teachers tell their students at the start of each class to “set an intention” for the class, such as cultivating compassion or gratitude. It’s typically a value that you wish to strengthen, and it’s something you can practice on the mat and then take with you to the outside world.
“I’ve learned to approach my day with intent, focus, [or] goals,” says Liz Galloway, yogi, wellness coach, and fitness instructor. “This has given me more organization, and less stress, because I’m decided on the outlook of my day. I tackle it with intent.”
8. Feel the Feelings
Many of the maladaptive habits people are drawn to (whether it’s drinking or compulsive shopping) are really an escape from “feeling their feelings.” Negative emotions are uncomfortable to sit with, but yoga is one way to practice accepting discomfort.
“As an addict in recovery from an eating disorder, yoga played a huge role in my life [for] teaching me how to feel,” says Hope Zvara, author and CEO of Mother Trucker Yoga. “Addicts use their addiction to not feel what is too overwhelming or painful. The practice of yoga helped me feel those feelings in small doses.”
It is actually not uncommon for yogis to start crying during certain poses—not because they’re in physical pain, but because some yoga poses can stretch the areas where we hold our tension and trigger an emotional release.
9. Be Patient
Let’s face it: You’re probably not going to be able to do a handstand on Day 1. Yoga forces you to accept where you’re at in your practice. Yes, you want to challenge yourself, but you should never push yourself to extreme pain or injury.
“As I get older, yoga has taught me patience as I am sometimes unable to do poses that I have done for a decade due to an injury,” says Erin Pitkethly, BSc, Phm, RPh, NNCP, pharmacist, and yogi of 14 years. “Each week there is a small improvement, and having to wait a month or two to be able to return to a full asana is humbling.”
10. Quiet the Mind
It’s hard to worry about work or bills for too long when you’re busy focusing on perfecting your breathing and posture. Yoga is a great way to calm your thoughts if traditional meditation isn’t a good fit for you. Over time, you can become more intentional about keeping your mind focused only on your yoga practice.
“Yoga has been a huge help to my mental health as it has helped me culture a practice of monitoring my thoughts,” says Rebecca Koehn, yogi of 10 years and editor of Yogapedia. “I’ve dealt with anxiety issues since I was in high school … but yoga has shown me that I have the ability to rein in my rampaging thoughts.”
Don’t have a yoga studio near you? You can still practice at home.