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Yoga as a Path of Self Discovery and Self-Care    (First Published in Unity Leaders Journal)

by Rev. Diana Kennedy

Do you ever feel like you are running on empty, grabbing for an energy drink and yet feeling depleted? Are your shoulders tight and your schedule jam packed? Do you barely have time to breathe between a conference call and dashing off to a Sunday service planning meeting?

If you are anything like me, your work is your passion and you often skip self-care. Prior to integrating yoga into my daily life, I rarely slowed down long enough to enjoy life. Yoga has brought the benefits of meditation into my entire life. After doing restorative yoga on a regular basis (I now practice at home daily), I became even more mindful and learned to “stop and smell the roses.” It became a part of my mindfulness practice, affecting every aspect of my life.

While I am very health conscious, I never thought I’d become a “yoga person”.  Even though I had taken a few yoga classes in the past, I didn’t become a raving fan until I was invited by some friends to attend a fitness class held at Unity Village. At first, I was hesitant to tackle something new. I didn’t feel ready for hot yoga or a fast moving, more demanding yoga class, so I chose the slower paced restorative class and it has made all the difference.  

It was this gentler, more inward approach to yoga that ended up changing my life. The yoga class leader was a great role model for conscious and healthy living. She was knowledgeable, helpful and very, very present. The instructor was attentive to the minute details of the class space and to the needs of each participant. She really honed in on what was important in creating a sacred space through dim lighting, soothing music and by offering warm words of encouragement.

Because of the welcoming heart energy, I started attending restorative yoga class now and again and noticed that not only did my neck feel less stiff, I was starting to sleep better at night and was more energized during the day. What was even more remarkable was that over time, my racing mind slowed way down and my heart opened more fully. I was starting to feel deeply nourished on many levels, more than ever before in my life!

I felt right at home doing restorative yoga which allowed me to experience a profound sense of relaxation and rejuvenation in every cell of my body. I began to see results immediately and within a few weeks, I was hooked. I began attending restorative yoga class twice a week which amplified the positive benefits that I was already starting to receive.

Most of the asanas (or poses) in restorative yoga are done in a resting position on the floor. This form of yoga focuses on each attendee receiving education and support in the correct alignment of the body. Instead of swiftly moving from one pose to the next, restorative yoga emphasizes holding each pose for a longer period of time allowing muscles, tendons and ligaments to gently relax and stretch in a healthy way. The process of gentle stretching helped to create space in my physical structure that allowed me to relax into a sense of peace like never before.

Just in case you’ve never experienced restorative yoga, it is all about the ahhhh experience. Each time I attended class, my body would just about melt into the bolster used to support my body on the yoga mat. The warmth and nurturing I experienced when the instructor covered me with a blanket reminded me of the self-care that I truly needed to start giving myself. As a former massage therapist, I had an intellectual understanding of the physiological benefits my body was receiving, but nothing prepared me for the positive effects it would have on my mind.

I already had an established daily meditation practice that I truly cherished. Wanting to learn more about this new love, yoga, I did some research. I learned that yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning yoke or union. While there is no single definition of yoga, the word is often used to refer to both a state of connection and a body of techniques that allow a person to consciously connect. In fact, yoga was historically used as preparation for meditation, my first love and favorite spiritual practice.

The science and physiology of yoga drew me in as well and I learned the benefits for both mind and body. In-depth studies led by the National Institute for Health reveal yoga’s positive effect on the brain. Yoga has been shown to bring about measurable changes in the body’s sympathetic nervous system, decreasing the “fight or flight” stress response. Yoga also boosts our levels of the feel-good brain chemicals like GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, which are responsible for feelings of relaxation. There is also consensus that yoga boosts immune function. With all these benefits, it seems that I hit the jackpot, furthering my commitment to my budding new spiritual practice.

Just like becoming a Unity Truth student changed my life, studying and practicing yoga has led to positive outcomes as well, including a deeper connection with my body, more self-compassion, healthier and more mindful eating habits, less clutter in my life, and a greater awareness of the Divine presence within my heart. This powerful tool for wellbeing has brought me so many gifts and my heart is overflowing with gratitude!

Little did I know that I would fall in love with the ancient spiritual practice of yoga. Yoga, like Unity, is a path of discovery, both leading to self-realization and awakening. Now when I sit down to write my Sunday message and plan my week’s activities, ideas seem to arise with ease and my life flows more gracefully, much like a yoga class. I find it easier to be kind to myself and others. Extraneous clutter, both internal and external, is leaving my life but my personal yoga practice is here to stay. I know that the rewards of a flexible body, clear mind and compassionate heart will bless me all the days of my life.

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