Chances are, you or someone you know has practiced yoga at least once. It originated in India thousands of years ago, but its following has caught on relatively recently in the United States, particularly with millennials.
Since 2012, the number of people who claim to practice yoga has increased by about 50 percent, and the benefits of yoga seem endless. However, right now much of what we know is anecdotal. While funding for research on the health benefits of yoga is limited, the field is gaining interest as more Americans look toward alternative therapies for chronic health conditions.
YMyHealth sat down with yoga instructor and fellow millennial, Eliza Ogasawara, to talk through how her practice has shaped her everyday life. Eliza is both an accountant by day and a Registered Yoga Teacher with Yoga Alliance.
YMyHealth: What was your first experience with yoga?
Eliza: When I was younger, I can vividly remember going to a yoga class with my mom, laying in savasana, eyes wide open, fingers and toes fidgeting, and being so annoyed that my mom found it fun to lay quietly with a room full of people doing the same thing. Most importantly, I felt like I had way better things to be doing than “napping while trying to stay awake.” I just didn’t get it! This attitude around yoga kept me skeptical toward the practice for many years.
YMyHealth: What changed your mind?
Eliza: I was an active kid. Throughout high school and middle school, I participated in various sports—tennis, volleyball, and track. These hobbies fizzled out when I went to college, and I found myself itching for a new way to stay active that didn’t involve playing on a team, or signing up for a club activity. I liked the freedom of yoga classes, and the way yoga helped me to connect with myself. I guess you could say that it was in those yoga classes that I discovered the meaning of the body-mind connection.
YMyHealth: What was your experience like in your first class?
Eliza: The impact of my first hot power yoga class gave me a sensation so powerful that I finally began to understand the concept of listening to my body and the importance of sharing these discoveries of the body-mind connection. Lying there in savasana in a pool of my own sweat, I felt thoroughly exhausted, and yet, I felt strong!
Based on my form and strength, you could say it didn’t go very well – I spent most of the class panting or falling out of poses, barely able to see from the sweat. Yet, my body was rejoicing, buzzing, and full of energy. At the end, I smiled to myself because this was something I achieved all by myself. This feeling of accomplishment wasn’t something I had ever experienced playing a team sport, or performing an instrument on stage. It was a new sense of self-awareness, and for the first time I found myself saying “good job,” rather than “you should’ve done better.” I was hooked.
YMyHealth: How did you decide to become a teacher?
Eliza: After college, I moved to Houston, Texas. Because I didn’t know the layout of the city very well, I found myself in all corners trying out new yoga studios that varied widely in setup and decor. Then I found BIG Power Yoga.
After a 30-day trial, I signed up to become a member. It not only was a phenomenal studio, but also it was a community offering diverse ways to explore and discover your own yoga journey, on your own time. In December 2015, I was encouraged by a teacher to consider BIG’s 200-hour yoga teacher training. I didn’t have any astounding reason except that my body was telling me it was time. I tear up even thinking about my decision to sign up for BIG’s teacher empowerment program because it was one of the best decisions I could have made.
YMyHealth: How do you think yoga has affected other parts of your life?
Eliza: Moving through regular sessions at BIG, I started taking full responsibility for my own actions. Most of my life, I had played the victim to my “problems,” and hadn’t sought help because I felt they were hopeless and impossible to fix. It empowered me to make choices in my life that lead me to living a happier life.
Yoga now isn’t just a hobby, or something I check off my list each day. It’s a life style, and it is a necessary part of living my life. It’s second nature, natural, and just like food or water, something that will always be necessary in my life.
YMyHealth: What makes yoga different than other types of exercise?
Eliza: Yoga can encompass a variety of different things. There’s the exercise aspect of it, and the workout is great, but there’s also a major connection to your physical body that allows you to tap into your mind and spirit. The way I have gotten access to those deeper parts of what make me who I am, is first through connecting to my physical body through yoga.
YMyHealth: How does yoga benefit our mental health?
Eliza: Yoga has allowed me to love my body again. It has taught me that even though things may get challenging in my life, my circumstances don’t mean anything about who I am at my center – whole and perfect. It has taught me that my thoughts will come and go, and that I don’t have to attach myself to or associate who I am with those thoughts because nothing is permanent.
I think there’s a chemical aspect that is occurring as well. The endorphins that are released when we sweat and move our bodies affects the chemical make up in our minds, therefore benefiting our mental health.
But I think really the most effective tool is mindfulness – being able to distinguish the difference between our thoughts versus what our body knows to be true.
YMyHealth: Where does yoga fit in, in terms of preventing injury for those millennials who are physically active on a regular basis?
Eliza: I think if millennials have a regular yoga practice, they get access to practicing the tools of mindfulness and being self-aware of both their minds and their bodies. This in turn will benefit any other physical activity they take part in because they will be more aware of what their bodies can handle, how far to push themselves, and when to back off.
YMyHealth: What is the biggest transformation, physical or mental, you’ve seen someone undergo after developing a strong yoga practice?
Eliza: I’ll speak from my own experience. For me, it was developing a better relationship with my body, and more specifically, my relationship to my body and food. I used to find that the only way I could feel control was restricting my food. I saw my body as my enemy and something I had to constantly regulate and fight against. Finding my yoga practice was really all about finding myself again. I learned to love myself, my body, my mind, and my spirit, as a friend, rather than an enemy. Because of this, I am able to love others freely as well, whereas before, I was closed off from creating any kind of relationship in my life.
Eliza currently teaches at Big Yoga in Houston, Texas. Follow her on Instagram at @yogi_liza.