Want to Get Yoga’s Life-Changing Benefits? The Key is Not What You Expect

The true gifts of yoga are byproducts of the practice

Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

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When I was in my late twenties, I went through a devastating breakup. Managing heartbreak while I worked a demanding job to support myself in NYC left me depleted. It felt impossible to get out of bed. I couldn’t fathom how I’d manage each day.

The best I could do was to take things one day at a time, beginning with the smallest increments. My mind couldn’t reach as far as walking to the bathroom to brush my teeth, but I could see myself placing my right foot and left foot down onto the rug one at a time and, borrowing Oprah’s advice, saying “thank” with one step and “you” with the next. Admittedly, I didn’t feel thankful at first. But that practice is what got me to the bathroom sink—and out the door—each day.

I certainly didn’t feel like making time for a yoga asana practice. But to avoid coming home to an empty apartment, I took classes with my favorite teachers. After months of living one step and one class at a time, I realized some asanas were coming more easily and pleasantly than before. I’d begun to recognize many faces at the class and greeted fellow practitioners by name. My “thank you” each morning eventually rolled out of my heart instead of just off my tongue.

I did not practice yoga in an attempt to recover from heartbreak. Or to make new friends. Or even to improve my poses. These were byproducts of my practice. Simply doing yoga—each breath, each step, each class—became living yoga. Years later, the benefits continue to reveal themselves, especially when I’m not looking for them.

The byproducts of yoga practice

Your practice—no matter how devoted—will not guarantee specific outcomes, but benefits will always reveal themselves. This is Vibhūti Pāda, one of the foundational tenets of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, especially articulated in the introduction: “Vibhūti are all the accomplishments that come as byproducts of yoga practice.”

I grew up understanding vibhūti in Hindu culture as a grayish-white ash that we might offer to a deity or place on our forehead at the third eye in prayer or reverence. It is the byproduct of wood being transformed by the power of sacred fire. The Bhagavad Gita (verse 19 of chapter four) describes how we might apply the same concept in our lives.

यस्य सर्वे समारम्भा: कामसङ्कल्पवर्जिता: |
ज्ञानाग्निदग्धकर्माणं तमाहु: पण्डितं बुधा: || 19||

yasya sarve samārambhāḥ kāma-saṅkalpa-varjitāḥ
jñānāgni-dagdha-karmāṇaṁ tam āhuḥ paṇḍitaṁ budhāḥ

“Those who are wise let every action be free from the desires of material gain or pleasure; let all desire for results be burned in the fire of Divine knowledge; devote work to the work itself.”

Just as sacred ash and smoke result from being burned in the fire, in yoga practice, vibhūti comes as one of many byproducts of earnest engagement in the work itself. We can celebrate our accomplishments—achieving a pose, gaining new followers—but we don’t practice yoga for those results. The ancient wisdom of yoga reminds us that achievement alone will not sustain happiness—and we must practice acceptance of that.

Practicing for the joy of it

Practicing with the desire to receive something may or may not yield what you want. If you find yourself caught in a pressured cycle of “doing” or “performing” yoga to attain some material or ego-driven goal, consider redirecting your practice into something that will enhance your well-being. And take it one step at a time.

Revisit with Yourself:

In a calm space, ask yourself the questions, “What brought me to yoga? What kept me with yoga?” Many of us have been raised with yoga principles in our culture or community, and practicing yoga feels like a reconnection. Many of us simply tried a class and stayed with it because it just feels good. Pausing to ask yourself what actually keeps you with yoga can help you reengage in its true meaning. Answering these questions will remind you how yoga’s ancient teachings have miraculously helped you live more flexibly and happily, not what it has temporarily given you.

Engage with Community:

When I was going through difficult times, the vibhūti of my practice were the community, friends, and teachers who came into my life. The Western evolution of yoga has turned it into a form of self-help, but that is a misunderstanding of the practice. Yoga is as much communal as it is individual—and the opportunity to build community is a beautiful byproduct of the practice. We may not consider the impact of simple, honest engagement with people who help us feel good. Yet, the sutras suggest we should.

Take Small, Slow Steps:

The media—especially social media—presents us with so many ideas. The irony is that considering everything we “could do” and “should be” might render us stuck. When you are experiencing inertia, ask yourself, what is the one gentle step you can envision taking? Completing even the smallest thing can help you feel that you’ve accomplished something.

Doing simple forms of yoga eventually becomes “living” your yoga. You’ll recognize shifts in your body, mind, and spirit, perhaps feeling stronger, more flexible, and more forgiving to yourself, the people around you, and even your circumstances. Enjoy vibhūti revealing itself and becoming part of your life’s rhythm.

Rina Deshpande, EdM, E-RYT 500, is a teacher, writer, and yoga and mindfulness researcher.

EXPLORE THE HISTORY OF YOGA  Take Rina’s course, “The Culture and Practice of the Yama,” on the Outside Learn Channel.

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