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Why Yoga Can Change the World

Photo: Courtesy of Dane Wetton

Shannon Roche

President and CEO, Yoga Alliance and the Yoga Alliance Foundation

I started practicing yoga almost 20 years ago, and like most people, at least in the United States, who practice yoga, I did so to reduce stress and increase flexibility, while also grabbing a little “me” time to balance an otherwise crazy day. 

In my 20s, I graduated from a yoga teacher training program, not so I could teach, but rather to deepen my practice. Little did I know that years later, I would be leading the largest global professional association for yoga schools and teachers, serving our members who serve the world through the art and science of yoga. What I have learned in my time as a student of and executive for yoga is that, when practiced deeply and regularly, yoga truly can change the world.

Healing calm

Many of us step onto the mat for the first time at the recommendation of a loved one, a friend, a co-worker, or a doctor. Perhaps we need to find some calm in our day, or we need to gain strength or flexibility, or to recover from injury. In some capacity, we need to heal.

We return to the mat because of the practice’s benefits, sometimes subtle, sometimes profound. Sometimes immediate, sometimes over time. We might find ourselves a little less angry sitting in traffic, or a bit kinder to our neighbors. We might be more collaborative with co-workers, or more open with family and friends. We might choose healthier foods or quit habits that no longer serve us, or never did. We might find that our back doesn’t ache as much or that we can run a little farther without pain.

Patanjali’s yoga sutra 1.2 defines yoga as “the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff” (per Swami Satchidananda’s translation). In other words, yoga is about calming the fluctuations of the mind, quieting the constant chatter. 

Specifically, yoga means unity. It brings us together — ourselves with our own individual minds, bodies, and breath — and collectively with our teachers and fellow students.

Deeper lessons

Yoga is not about any particular pose, though you might not know it with the way it is celebrated in mainstream media, advertising, and even our own social media feeds. While the asana limb of the practice, which focuses on the poses, is a way many of us start our yoga practice, it’s not often, which I mentioned before, why we stay with it.

Yoga leads to acceptance, respect, and self-love, and often points us on a direction of giving back. Seva (pronounced say-vah) is the Sanskrit word for selfless service, and there is no shortage of this among the global yoga community. 

In these times of over-stress, over-stimulus, and pretty much over-anything — and as we explore at both the macro and micro levels notions of power, empowerment, access, and equity — yoga teachers around the world are sharing yoga to others at schools, hospitals, senior living communities, community centers, impoverished countries, police stations, and prisons, in addition to studios, gyms, and fitness locations. Teachers are studying trauma-informed yoga, and in some cases are using yoga therapy to help ease suffering in educated ways, ultimately doing their part to make their piece of the world a better place. 

You don’t need a mat

Some ways I practice “yoga” every day, irrespective of ever stepping into a class or onto my mat: 

  • I make time for myself every day, which helps me make time for others.
  • I try not to be too hard on myself but rather to be happy with what I achieve each day.
  • I offer help to others as others have helped me along my path.
  • I stop and smell the roses, or at least I remember to pause and take a breath when I start to feel anxious.
  • When I do take a class, I try to make note of my feelings each time I walk in and out so I can see how I changed.

According to the most recent Yoga in America Study from 2016, more than 36 million people practiced yoga in the United States alone. By all accounts, that number is growing by leaps and bounds both here and abroad. People practice in studios, at home, in parks, by themselves, and with friends. What binds us is the desire for betterment. That’s a strong and powerful connection.

Yoga is, truly, changing the world. One amazing breath at a time.

Shannon Roche, President and CEO, Yoga Alliance and the Yoga Alliance Foundation, [email protected]

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