For most of my life I’ve felt lost. Out of place, homesick for a place that I’d never been to, a place I didn’t know existed. All I knew was that I didn’t belong where I was; whether that was with the particular society I live(d) in, the groups of people I associated with, my family, my hometown/state/country – anywhere.
I didn’t know what I needed to make me feel whole – to make me feel like I somehow fit in with a world I didn’t recognize as home. Bouts of depression and anxiety were common, and I was miserable most of the time – which kind of made me an asshole every once in a while (ok, maybe more than that). But I got out of it – mostly. Personal growth is a never-ending mountain to climb, but ascension is ascension.
Two of my greatest loves, yoga and travel, have both contributed exponentially in my transformation into becoming a better human. Here are five important ways solo travel and yoga helped me become a better person – and get out of the rut that had lasted most of my life.
1. travel & yoga bring you closer to your authentic self
I now know that part of my misery spurred from the fact that I wasn’t living as my authentic self. Yeah, I know, for any non-yogis reading this out there, it probably sounds like a bunch of new-age bullshit. I get it. I used to think the same things.
sva = self
dhyaya = study
Svadhyaya is the fourth of the niyamas, Patanjali’s guidelines set forth for how one interacts with oneself. Svadhyaya teaches us to not only bring awareness to our actions, but to find the reasons behind those actions. Analysis in action. It teaches us to bring awareness to our reactions, our emotions, our habits, out thoughts, even our posture.
The physical practice of yoga, asana, can be a tremendously effective vehicle for svadhyaya. In postures we are taught to tune in to the subtle sensations of the body, the emotions and reactions that accompany these sensations, and the crutches we habitually rely on when things go awry. These are things I never did or noticed before beginning my practice. Yoga gently coaxes you into higher states of introspection and awareness.
A little bit of background – I was raised by an ethnocentric Republican family in a rural town in New England. I often found myself regurgitating their beliefs. The belief that people who collected welfare were all taking advantage of the system. That I could only date a black man if he were educated. That taxes shouldn’t go to things involving social welfare. We had a robotic pool cleaner that was named ‘Juan,’ for fucks sake.
I believed these things that had been instilled in me. These were beliefs that I thought I’d developed on my own. I judged people to no end. Not only that, I didn’t treat people very great, for the most part.
Completely led by ego, I was intent on being better than the next person, and the thought that somehow my life and time were more valuable than theirs. I lied to make it seem like I fit in with what society deemed I should be. I was the epitome of an asshole.
When I began a dedicated yoga practice, I started the practice of svadhyaya. Svadhyaya is introspection and self-study meant to separate and distinguish the transitory ego from the authentic self.
As I went deeper into my yoga practice, I found that my ego incited actions that didn’t align with who I truly was and strived to be.
Solo travel had a very similar effect. Out in the world, away from the confines and restrictions of my environment, I was able to formulate my own ideas and opinions of things based on my observations.
Witnessing the world in a new way with a broadened perspective, I was able to identify those beliefs and ideals that were not true to me. Once this realization happened, I was able to make the necessary changes in my attitude and behavior to come a little closer to living authentically.
The closer you come to aligning with your true self, the more whole you feel. The more whole you feel, the more at peace with yourself you become. Being at peace with yourself leads to a higher degree of being at peace with other people.
“Watch your thoughts, they become words; Watch your words, they become actions; Watch your actions, they become habits; Watch your habits, they become character; Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny" - Unknown
How had I become so lost? How is it that my past self had become so estranged from my authentic self? This part is kind of easy.
2. introspection & delving into the past
As I mentioned above, we tend to attach ourselves to beliefs set forth by parents, family, teachers, experiences – our overall environment. The societies we live in also play a big role; the simple fact is that each of us exists in what is only a teeny tiny microcosm of the world at large.
This leads us to develop a warped view of how the world outside of our comfort zone is in reality. Which can then lead to feelings of separateness rather than oneness. Prejudice, bias, narrow-mindedness. Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone.
In order to make the changes that enable the birth of the ‘new you,’ you have to first address the ‘you’ of the past. Once you begin the journey of introspection that travel and yoga bring, you begin to see the underlying reasons that made or make you who you are.
Anodea Judith has a truly fascinating book on developmental psychology and the chakras that I must’ve re-read three times by now (and it ain’t short!). This book provided me with incredible insight into how I’d become me. You should absolutely read it (yogi, traveler, or neither), but in a nutshell, here it is.
isn’t that awesome??
So you see how things we’ve learned in the past about the way things should be and the way we’re hardwired can skew our perspective of our experiences. This way of thinking is limiting.
And the people that surround us only affirm our small-mindedness. After all, a large part of what shapes us is the environment that we share with these people. All this does is create an imaginary, superficial bond. We take a huge social risk every time we stray from the herd, because we threaten the ties of that mutual identity.
As I mentioned earlier, a higher degree of introspection leads to a greater ability to think independently. Solo travel allows us to formulate our own beliefs and ideals by pulling us out of our comfort zone. What travel does is offer us the possibility that reality as we know it may not be reality as it is. That the reality that we know is only a microscopic drop of water in the ocean that is our world.
Tuning inward allows you to realize things about yourself you may not have previously noticed. Introspection allows you to see what crutches you rely on, your behavioral trends, how you relate to other people.
The more self-awareness you’ve harnessed, the more in control you are (of your behavior, your thoughts, your reactions, etc.).
3. habit breaking
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Solo Travel & Social Anxiety, both travel and yoga actually re-wire your brain. When your brain receives unfamiliar stimuli in a new place, it’s forced to process that information, essentially taking it (and you) off of auto-pilot.
When traveling (especially solo), it forces you to see the crutches you habitually rely on. You’re able to recognize and analyze your go-to methods of self-preservation.
One of my favorite crutches is isolation. When someone or something overwhelms me, I go full-on ostrich and bury my head in the sand.
When I’m traveling, it’s near impossible for me to do that. My drive to explore and see the world outweighs my drive to feel safe, in the comforts of my own company.
Solo travel allows me to continue the (probably never-ending) process of facing my anxiety and breaking habits of my old ways.
Yoga does the same thing, in a different way. When we’re in a difficult pose and want to get out of it, we make ourselves stay. If our initial reaction is to avoid unpleasant sensations or situations, yoga teaches us to stick with it.
Yoga teaches us to learn remain equanimous in times of distress instead of reacting – breaking those habits that have been so deeply engrained.
While traveling, we’re able to welcome new ideas and foreign concepts because we’re open and receptive to the culture we’re experiencing. We can integrate these new beliefs into our views and perspective of the world, examining the possibility of what lies outside the realm of what we’ve been taught.
When we travel, we see other cultures and realize that, sure, of course they are different. But they are us. Travel sparks a sense of oneness instead of separateness. It allows us to discover the humanity of the people with whom we share the earth.
Similarly, yoga teaches us that everything is connected. That we are all cells of the same body. The very first yama (the very first limb of yoga) is ahimsa, which means ‘non-violence.’
Ahimsa is often loosely translated as compassion. But compassion not only for people you know and love, but strangers too, even those you may not care for. Ahimsa should also be extended not only to humans, but to every living thing on earth.
Transcending the small-mindedness of the individual to the whole-mindedness of the collective creates a sense of interconnectedness.
Being able to see our universal connection makes us kinder. The more we are able to relate to another, the more we can sympathize/empathize. We are less judgemental. The less afraid we are of the things we don’t know or don’t understand.
Bonus points if you’re traveling somewhere deep in the heart of nature! This only exemplifies the sense of interconnectedness that seeing a foreign place evokes. If you happen to be going somewhere with a dope national park nearby, here are the best yoga poses for hikers.
And last, travel forces you to look at the culture and lives of others and see different ways of life – likely relative to your own culture and way of life. You come back home and can suddenly see familiar things with a changed perspective.
But, like me, you may find that the things that you enjoyed and the things that motivated you no longer do. Maybe you find that you’ve outgrown people you once felt close to. Regardless of whether you travel or practice yoga, both force you to turn inward and examine your inner landscape in a new light.
Change is inevitable. The person you are now is transient. Change happens automatically. Growth requires adversity. It is one-directional – growth is always improving upon the previous state (otherwise it’d be regression).
Growth increases wisdom, enables open-mindedness, and gives you a broader perspective.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. . . .
Myself moving forward then and now and forever,
Gathering and showing more always and with velocity,
Infinite and omnigenous. . . .
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself
- Walt Whitman
Never would I have thought that it’d be travel & yoga that made me a better person, but here we are. I hope if any of this resonates with you that you’ll give one (or both) a go.
Am I ‘cured’? No. But each day is better, and slowly but surely I am breaking old habits, further opening my mind, and coming closer to the person that I am.
Check out my list of travel essentials here!