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What Is Yoga For?

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Yoga-and-Flexibility

Lessons about the many benefits of yoga.

Many great things happened when I attended the Yoga Journal Conference last weekend in Lake Geneva, Wis. I learned to chant the Gayatri mantra from memory. Senior Anusara teacher Desiree Rumbaugh taught me to expand my backbend by about a thousand degrees. And the beatific founder of Purna Yoga, Aadil Palkhivala asked me a really good question: “Why do you practice yoga?”

He didn’t want an answer, which was nice, because after 12 years of practice I didn’t have one immediately. My reasons for practicing seem to change all the time, and they’re not always so spiritual. Sometimes I practice because it feels good to stand on my head or open my shoulders or go into backbend. Other times I practice because if I don’t I will never kick up into arm balance without help, and I’ve been trying too long to quit now.

So that question lingered with me throughout the week, and a more satisfying answer did finally come to me yesterday afternoon. It wasn’t during a headstand, though. I was visiting a beloved wheelchair-bound relative and helping off her commode toilet. While struggling to dislodge the full bucket to empty it in the flush toilet, I spilled its entire contents on the carpet of her room. Dropped it like a hot rock. Oh yes, dear reader, I did. I will leave that mess to your imagination.

Meanwhile (and here’s where events become notable), panic did not take over. Not completely, anyway. What happened was: I got some rubber gloves and disinfectant and paper towels and start scrubbing with what I hope was a minimum of fanfare. My extremely gracious relative cracked jokes while I cleaned. Exactly nobody drowned in shame or discomfort, though the seeming worst had happened. The mess got removed and we got on with our day together.

It was while scrubbing that the answer to Mr. Palkhivala’s question popped into my head. This is what yoga is for. It’s for when, incidentally, s&#T happens onto the carpet. The physical benefits of yoga are so obvious and appreciable that it’s easy to forget that yoga is training for the mind; physical practice (asana) is only one of the eight “limbs.” The rest address the practice of ethical behavior and compassion toward others (yama), self-restraint (pratyahara), and the like. What we do on the mat, then, is only about 1/8 of yoga. The other 7/8 is all about the carpet.

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