11 Lessons My Yoga Teacher Taught Me

"Yoga is not about touching your toes, it's about what you learn on the way down."

- Judith Hanson Lasater

dancers pose

I’ve been practicing yoga for a few years now, but only seriously for about a year. I go to four or five classes per week, and it’s amazing how much my body has changed, my mind has changed, and yada yada all that hippie dippie stuff you’ve heard before. One of the things I love most about my yoga practice is the teachers. The wisdom they are able to impart during a 60 or 90 minute sweat session is impressive. Here are 11 of the life lessons (in no particular order) that I frequently come back to outside of class. What yogi wisdom resonates most with you?

1. “Every day is different”

Yoga teachers often say during poses that one side may feel different than the other, or that one position may feel different than the day before — or even just 10 minutes prior in class — and that's okay. Our bodies change, and they feel different sometimes. My toe stand on the left is way better than the one on the right, and that's okay. 

Like everyone, I relate to this on so many levels. Sometimes I crush a 90 minute hot yoga class and the next day have to lay down and take a break in a beginners class. Every day is different. At work, one day I’ll teach my best lessons, feel on top of the world, and have no behavior problems, then the next will be an absolute disaster. Every day is different. One day I can be super positive, productive, and happy with myself, then the next I just want to eat Nutella from the jar and watch episodes of Lockup.

Every day is different. And that's okay. 

wheel pose

2. “Thank yourself for showing up”

I’ve always kind of hated the phrase, “90% of success is showing up”. Showing up to work is cool and all, but, um, then you have to actually work. Showing up to yoga class is great and all, but then I actually have to work my tail off and sweat my brains out. But in my cynicism I think I missed the beauty of this phrase for a long time. 

It's more than just showing up. “Thank yourself for showing up on your mat today”, “thank yourself for giving yourself this hour”, “thank yourself for taking the time to care for your mind and body” — basically, give yourself some credit. Self-care is so important, but so many people don’t prioritize it. It feels selfish to spend time doing something fully for yourself. 

Taking care of yourself, through yoga or anything else, is essential. It’s self-preservation. Capacity building. If you don’t take care of yourself, how can you bring your best self to anyone else?

Show up for yourself. 

yoga joshua tree

3. “There's no prize for straight legs”

One of my hot yoga teachers always says this during padahastasana (hands to feet pose). To just grab onto whatever is available to you, and don’t be afraid to bend your legs as much as you need. Of course, later she will mention that you may want to work on straightening your legs, but it’s okay if they never are. There’s no prize. It’s you against you. 

I think about this a lot in life. There is no prize for ______. I can be as driven as I want to be, but if I want to accomplish something, it’s just me against me. It doesn't matter if the person next to me has amazing form, it's me against me. There is no prize

Everyone has their strengths. The poses in life they execute (seemingly) perfectly. But this doesn't make anything I do better or worse. It just is. My prizes in life are won by me in the battle only against me. When I meet the goals I've set. For myself and no one else.

There's no prize. 

dog yoga

4. “Fully surrender”

Savasana (corpse pose) is often said to be the “hardest pose in yoga” — because you must fully surrender. If you’re not a yoga enthusiast, the pose is literally just laying on your back, arms by your sides, with all muscles relaxed. Legs splay to the sides, tongue relaxes from the roof of your mouth — you are consciously doing absolutely nothing. 

It’s no surprise that this is a difficult pose. Letting go of control is, for many people — myself included — the hardest thing to do. It means being vulnerable, and who the heck wants to do that?? But it’s so important. I have made a conscious effort to surrender in some areas of my life in the last few years and it is excruciatingly hard. To just let things be. To stop fighting. Stop trying to force things. To let things happen rather than make them happen. 

Yoga has helped me with this, in class, and in life. Feeling vulnerability is scary, but think of how much better you feel when you allow things to happen. When you aren’t so attached to one outcome that you pass by others that are more suited for you. 

Let it be. Surrender. 

yoga boat dock boat pose

5. "Take up space”

One of the things I resonated with the most when I started practicing yoga was the idea of “taking up space”. This is something often said during savasana (see above) as a way to fully let go. 

As a woman especially, we may feel the need to take up less space. To make ourselves small. To go about our lives in a way that doesn’t “rock the boat”. I read something recently that said that it’s not even so much that women are afraid of being seen, but that we are afraid of being seen doing the wrong thing. 

I can only speak for me, but I’m sure this is true for all genders — we’d sometimes rather make ourselves small than stand out and open up ourselves to the possibility of ridicule. Of criticism. Of “doing the wrong thing”

But y’all, if you aren’t ruffling a few feathers, you’re not doing anything important.

Don’t be afraid to take up some space. 

joshua tree dancers pose

6. “Go to your edge”

When we get into a difficult pose in yoga, the teachers will sometimes say to “go to your edge” or “find your edge and sit one inch lower”. The idea is to find the spot where you are challenged (without strain) and breathe into it. Sink into the challenge or discomfort. 

The edge between easy and strain is challenge. I’ve written about this before, but I really believe that the only way to go through life is to experience challenge. Lots of challenges. By choice. To make yourself stronger and more resilient. 

We all see those people who say they go to the gym all the time but never seem to have any results. They half-ass everything, skip what they don’t like, take breaks, never sweat, whatever. They “go to the gym” but are they actually working out? I don't want to judge anyone, but it doesn’t seem like it.

In life this works the same way. There are people who are in the exact same place they were in ten years ago. Who complain about their situation, but don’t do anything to change it. In an effort to stay in a position of safety, they aren’t going to their edge. 

Go to your edge. Then sit a little lower.

yoga red rocks

7. “Look in the mirror - make adjustments”

If you haven’t spent a lot of time in yoga classes, it may seem like each class is just the same poses over and over. And, well, in a lot of classes they are -- but once you practice for a while you realize the intricacies of each pose. The way that micro movements change the entire posture. The teacher will encourage you to use the mirror to square your shoulders, move your knee an extra inch, or straighten your leg in a way that is almost invisible. But once you make the adjustment, you see a huge difference!

Life is the same way, right? We've all heard, "small things make a big difference" -- and it's true. You might remember my bed making obsession? It's a small thing, but it has definitely changed my life. Don't think that you have to do something grand to change your life. To give it purpose or joy. Small adjustments make a big difference. 

Look in the mirror at your life. Make small adjustments. 

yoga brainard

8. “Find a point of focus”

During balancing postures, yoga teachers will tell you to “find a point of focus” that will help you to balance. Drishdi is the official yogi term for this focused gaze. It’s a way to develop concentrated attention, and is the key to balancing. 

In life, this is obvious. You have to have a point of focus. If you are scattered and overwhelmed, your life is not in balance and you will fall. Finding concentrated attention on a point enables you to follow through, be successful, and find balance.

Now, that’s not to say you can only have one thing to focus on in life -- just only have one at a time. Multitasking is a lie. Our brains can only deeply focus on one thing at a time. Flow occurs when we are deeply focused on this ONE thing. If I look over at my neighbor in yoga during a balancing posture, I’m likely to fall out of it. In the same way, if we lose our singular focus on another task or another person, we are likely to lose the momentum and motivation to complete it in the best way.

Find your drishdi.

goat yoga


9. “Feel the sensation”

During uncomfortable poses, my yoga instructor will often say to “feel the sensation, and breathe into it” or “feel the sensation, but don’t come out early”“sink into it”. When I first heard it, I was a little cynical — sensation as just another word for discomfort. Through more practice, the more I gave in to it, and the more I have realized — discomfort is just a sensation. A sensation isn't necessarily good or bad. It just is. 

Often, when we feel something different, we immediately recoil. We think this is a feeling unlike what I’ve felt in the past, so it must be bad. It takes a lot of courage to just feel it. To sink in to the sensation and not try to come out. 

Feel the sensation. Sink in.

red rocks yoga 2

10. “Set an intention”

I go to a studio that is part of a nationwide chain and probably a little less traditional than most, but many teachers still take time in the beginning of class to encourage the setting of an intention. Something that you can come back to during class. A purpose

I spend a lot of time thinking about purpose and intent. (Intention was actually my word of the year last year). It's so important and yet so easily pushed aside. You can go through a day, month, or even years on autopilot — looking back later and wondering where the time went. If you live intentionally you are creating the map -- of where you want to be, how you want to feel, and the way you want your life to play out. 

While you can’t control your world (and shouldn’t, umm read 4), you can use your core values to create an intentional map. I can do things to move myself in the direction I want to be. I can set an intention and work towards it. 

Be intentional.

11. “Breathe”

Duh. 

Yoga, at it’s core, is about breathing. Always come back to your breath. Flow with your breath. Use your breath to cool off, to warm up, to relax, to focus — to do everything. I mean, it is what keeps us alive. 

In life, don’t forget to breathe. To calm down. To practice mindfulness. To, you know, live. To quote the tattoo of every 20-something girl you know: just breathe. Really. 

Just breathe.