The first time I walked into a yoga studio I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Back then I had never consistently exercised in my life, could barely reach my knees let alone my toes, and the words Om and Namaste were as foreign to me as Mandarin.
Admittedly what drove me to enter that class on a weekday evening after staring into a computer screen for eight hours and sitting in traffic for one, was nothing more than a vague curiosity. That and the fact that I detested the gym and got a side ache when I ran for over five minutes. I knew that I was getting older and I could no longer rely on my teenage metabolism to allow me all of the pasta and cheese that I wanted.
So in I went to my very first yoga class, which just so happened to be Bikrum. In other words, ninety minutes of yoga postures in one hundred and ten degree heat. I sweat and burned in ways I never knew possible and when the time came for Savasana, “dead man’s pose,” I melted into a puddle of sweat on my mat. I felt relaxed on an unprecedented level, which at the time I attributed to little more than physical exhaustion.
Over the years that followed I attended yoga classes sporadically; my commitment mirroring my devotion to my underutilized gym membership and my barely worn running shoes.
That is until two years ago, when I found myself in Costa Rica at the height of the rainy season. It was my third time in the country and my third time vowing to become a dedicated yogi. Only this time, without a sunny beach or a project or a boyfriend, I did.
I bought an unlimited yoga pass at Om Yoga in Puerto Viejo and challenged myself to practice twice a day every day. Somehow, from the first class I took that rainy tropical evening, I knew that showing up would not be a challenge. Something deep within me told me that I needed yoga in my life even though I didn’t yet comprehend why. I felt instantly addicted.
On the outside I practiced postures in the Vinyasa, Kundalini, Ashtanga, and Yin traditions; on the inside I did so much more. Through the loving guidance and gifted wisdom of my teachers at Om I began to actually practice yoga. I began to understand yoga as more than something that burned calories and turned me into a puddle of sweat. I understood yoga as a way of life. This shifted my relationship with the world perhaps more than all of the countries I’ve explored and all of the people I’ve met.
Perhaps what I love most about yoga is the limitless potential it allows for transformation. Today, two weeks after becoming a certified yoga teacher at the Pavones Yoga Center, studying with Indira Kalmbach whose deep wisdom never fails to astound me, I find myself reinvigorated with a new perspective and new sense of purpose. I’d like to share with you, whom I deeply treasure, just a few of the many ways that practicing yoga over the last two years has transformed my life.
Considering my nomadic lifestyle it should hardly come as a surprise that still is not my natural state. In fact I’ve always done things quickly; walking, talking, eating, thinking, reacting. Much of this comes from growing up in a culture where fast means productive and productive means worthy.
Traveling in Costa Rica, a country that lives by the motto “pura vida”, showed me to slow down enough to relax and enjoy life. However I associated this calm with my surroundings, rather than with myself. Consequently when things felt difficult I often responded by moving locations. As a world traveler without commitments, running away came as easy as buying a bus ticket and happiness remained as fleeting as a beautiful sunrise.
But in yoga I couldn’t run away. In yoga all that existed was me, a constant no matter where I stood in space.
Practicing Yin yoga, holding deep hip opening stretches for five minutes with my eyes closed, I struggled tremendously. I shifted, moving blocks and bolsters and blankets in my attempt to find a comfortable position. When I could not find one, I panicked. My mind screamed.
Alone in my sensations, alone with my emotions, I realized nothing outside of me could alleviate my discomfort and my fear. I had to sit physically still and turn inward. So finally I decided to stop fighting the sensation and surrender to it. In doing so, I found incredible release. For the first time my body and mind simultaneously understood what it meant to relax.
Similarly, in meditation, the practice of stilling the mind, I noticed my mind wander the moment it became bored or uncomfortable with the emotions that arose. As I worked through my discomfort by returning again and again to my mantra, I felt my entire being relax. I felt my heart open. At times I even felt like I was made of stardust.
Practicing yoga has shown me that when I still my body, thoughts arise. When I still my mind, emotions arise. When I release these emotions, I allow the space for my true nature to arise. Simply put, perhaps the first step in being, is being still.
Like so many individuals living in today’s digital world, focus and attention do not come easily for me. In fact before I practiced yoga my mind chattered so incessantly I would beg it to stop, then beg it to continue, afraid that if it fell silent, I would cease to exist. This chatter often directed my mind towards past events, either of longing or aversion, and into the future, filled with anticipation or anxiety. I associated deeply with these thoughts, believing that they encompassed who I was.
When I began practicing the physical form of yoga, for perhaps the first time in my life I shifted my awareness away from these thoughts and towards my body. I became aware of the connection the earth made with my feet, my feet made with my legs, my legs made with my hips, my hips made with my spine, my spine made with my neck, my neck made with my head, and my head made with the sky. In doing so I developed a relationship with my body on a new level. I could hear and learn from the messages that my body communicated through becoming aware of pure sensation.
And it did not end there.
To move with support and fluidity, in the practice of yoga we bring awareness to our breath. Prior to this practice I understood little about this fundamental component of my own human life. All life begins and ends with breath, just like each movement in yoga asana is meant to begin and end on the breath. I learned to control my breath and noticed how in doing so I could shift myself energetically. Focusing on my inhale and exhale offered my mind a task away from the constant churning.
I began noticing the relationship my body and my breath had with other layers of myself. I noticed when emotions arose and explored how they connected with not only my thoughts but with my physical movements and my breath. I noticed what emerged in difficult postures and what emerged in deep states of relaxation. I began to witness myself as more than my mental chatter, I witnessed myself as a multidimensional being.
Through the gentle suggestion of my teachers, I continued to work with this awareness even after I stepped off my mat. I practiced bringing awareness to other aspects of my life, from the way that I chose to place my foot on the ground to the words I chose to express to the world. I invited mindfulness into my life.
Mindfulness is the practice of softly bringing awareness to the present moment. In yoga we work with mindfulness to enhance our ability to experience what lies within us and around us as it is actually occurring. In doing so we feel a greater connection to the world and to ourselves. We witness the interconnectivity of everything and the way that what we do causes a ripple effect. This offers us tremendous power in how we choose to direct our energy in ourselves and out into the world, enabling us to be more deliberate in our actions to live with deeper purpose and intention.
Riding the Wave
What about when the present moment feels difficult to bear?
Each time I return to the states after long-term travel I notice myself feeling low. I notice that I easily judge myself for not carrying the high from my travels back home. It can feel easy to associate the joy I experience running freely barefoot on the beach, the yumminess I feel laying in the sunshine, and the peace I feel in the quiet of the jungle with who I am. Consequently when I fail to feel those same emotions running errands in traffic in a rainy city, I question if the “travel me” ever even existed.
It’s perhaps even worse when I’m dissatisfied or unhappy while traveling. How can I not be my best self when I’m in the environment where I’ve been my best self before?
Since beginning my yoga practice, I understood that ups and downs are inevitable in life. One day the sun will shine and the next a storm will roar. Someone may sing my praises and in a second another will tear me down. I knew that I had the power to choose happiness regardless of these outside circumstances. However that often left me feeling more frustrated. If I know that I have the capacity to feel good anywhere, why can’t I make myself feel good anywhere?!
When I began studying the yoga sutras in my yoga teacher training, I found a beautiful, gentler perspective. The second sutra reads “yogash chitta vritti nero dhah” which I interpret as “when we embrace the oneness in duality, witnessing the fluctuations, feeling the fluctuations, accepting the fluctuations, without attaching ourselves to the fluctuations, we find greater expansiveness in all that is.”
Duality is inevitable. Everything in the world has an opposing force. However in labeling things as good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable, desirable or undesirable, pleasurable or painful, we experience joy when the positive things happen and suffering with the negative things happen. However what actually made us feel happy or unhappy lay in the significance we applied to the experience, while the experience itself remains neutral.
The meaning I have chosen to assign to this ancient chant as it pertains to my life is as follows: if I acknowledge the beauty in opposites and the wholeness in everything, allowing myself to experience the highs and lows that will inevitably happen, without attaching judgment or my perception of who I am to them, I allow myself to find greater expansion in how I experience happiness and peace.
In other words, we can feel the wave, ride the wave, be one with the wave, without becoming the wave.
Embracing Radical Self-Acceptance
The more I work towards accepting the fluctuations in experience, the more I notice how obsessed our culture is with “fixing” everything. How many times do we hear or read the words “new and improved” relative to a product or a human being? We exercise, we diet, we read self help books, some of us practice yoga, to somehow become a better version of ourselves. In fact even the title of this blog post implies that something was wrong with me before I began practicing yoga, and yoga somehow “fixed” me.
The danger of this belief is that if we are constantly striving to be or to have something better, then who we are and what we have now can’t possibly be good enough. Consequently, perfectionism has plagued nearly everyone I know. We all want to feel worthy, and if we believe that we are not good enough now, we must strive to fix ourselves to the point where nothing is left to fix; achieving a state of perfection.
In our physical yoga practice we play with our physical edge. We respect our body exactly where it is while challenging ourselves to see what might live beyond it. In meditation we gently bring our mind back to our mantra when it starts to drift. In fact, in every aspect of yoga we acknowledge that we are perfect, while still having endless potential for growth.
It requires an incredible level of self-acceptance to laugh when we fall out of a yoga pose and get up and try again. To smile lovingly when we witness our minds have wandered during our meditation. To nod and try again when we realize we’ve spoken or acted without mindfulness.
In accepting ourselves exactly for who we are in the present moment, instead of forcing ourselves to fit a certain idea or mold, we become open to how we can transform in the future.
Once we accept ourselves, accepting everything else becomes easier. Released from a standard of perfection, others can be themselves without triggering our insecurities. We can accept people for who they are and experiences for what they are.
Incredible possibility lies there.
Opening to Possibility
Uncertainty can at times feel terrifying. Perhaps that is what prevents so many people from allowing change into their lives. However it’s often in overcoming these stages of fear where the greatest growth occurs.
When I began practicing yoga I quickly noticed that simply being open to the possibility that something could happen inevitably allowed that possibility to manifest into reality. I first noticed this as my strength and flexibility changed dramatically after just one month of consistent practice. I was able to take forms in my body I never imagined I could.
In physical asana, through bringing a deep openness to our bodies while cultivating our own strength, we perform seemingly impossible tasks all of the time. Arm balances are a perfect example. If you’ve never tried them they may seem impossible. However by practicing with the belief that our bodies are capable of anything, over time many of us learn to balance our entire bodies, with only our hands on the floor, with ease.
On a spiritual level I witness this whenever I release my intentions into the universe. When I fixate on how I might be able to achieve something, my logical mind steps in and quickly becomes stumped. This often leads me to feeling that it simply cannot be achieved. However when I instead focus on the possibility of my intention, however impossible it appears, I invite opportunities into my life that inevitably allow my intention to transpire.
Yoga shows us that by opening to the spontaneous gifts of life, even when they come in packages we don’t understand, we can find more expansion in what can bring joy into our lives and how our dreams can manifest.
Letting Go of the Outcome
…but what if they don’t manifest?
Transformation often begins with wanting something enough to change patterns to allow it to happen. This requires passion, willpower, and determination. However when we become attached to attaining a particular result of our efforts, we often lose sight of why we’re even doing what we’re doing.
I experience this often when blogging. Google Analytics, Facebook likes, blog comments, all can serve as quantifiable measures of how successful our creation is. Was this piece I wrote worthy? Hm, let me count the number of page views, shares, likes, and comments it received in order to determine that. The next thing I know I feel accomplished because of my many “likes” or discouraged because of my lack of.
Unfortunately the process of tabulating these results can rob us of the joy we felt in the pure process of creation. How often do we dismiss the bliss we felt in our experience of painting, dancing, writing, cooking, when the result becomes criticized or dismissed?
Paradoxically when we do release ourselves from the results of our efforts, our deepest desires often result. How can this be? Perhaps because letting go makes way for creativity. In focusing on the gift in the work itself we tap into our deepest place of purpose, producing our most beautiful expression possible, letting it go to allow ourselves to transform and once again create something new.
Finding Truth From Within
Letting go of external validation as a measure of worthiness comes more naturally when we feel a deeper sense of purpose from within. In a world where we can seek solutions to our perceived problems by typing into a search bar or posting a Facebook status, the art of turning inward becomes instrumentally important.
Through the deep listening enabled by the stillness and mindfulness that we cultivate in a yoga practice, we can connect with our own voice of wisdom that contains the truths that serve our individual selves best. Consider how different life becomes when we go within to find the answers instead of turning to outside opinion and advice. Who or what could possibly understand you better than your truest, purest, highest self?
During my yoga teacher training we were encouraged to practice an art form called co-listening as part of the study of the yoga of relationships. In co-listening rather than offering someone advice, shifting the story to your own experience, or offering any type of judgment or validation, we simply sit and listen to the person speak their truth. This experience shifted my perspective greatly by showing me how powerful it is to simply allow someone to arrive at his or her own answers.
Considering this, perhaps the most loving thing we can do as humans, is to simply allow ourselves and others a sacred, accepting place to explore.
For years I chased love. I longed for it. I pursued it. When I thought I had it, I clung to it. When my relationships changed or failed to fulfill the ideas I created about them, I felt profound suffering and disappointment.
However as I began to look inward to fulfill my needs, a process that often emerges spontaneously in states of mindfulness and stillness, I began to reconsider my definition of love. I saw that what I once perceived as love perhaps more closely resembled attachment. While in the past I looked to my family, my friends, and my boyfriends to comfort me with their affection and attention, I began practicing this on myself.
It started with simply telling myself I would be ok. When my legs shook in a yoga pose or I felt sadness and anger in a deep hip opener, I told myself “I am here for you. We can do this.” When I rolled to my side after Savasana, I cradled myself and placed my hand on my heart. “I love you,” I said.
Studying yoga at the Pavones Yoga Center, I was invited to work with a form of meditation called metta. The intention of a metta meditation is to cultivate a sense of loving kindness within ourselves and ultimately a greater sense of compassion towards everything. Working with metta I became aware of dark, vulnerable parts of myself that did not feel worthy of love. By continually directing words of loving kindness to these places I felt myself begin to open. I noticed that the more open I became, the more I became love.
When I connect with my own deep place of love, behind the veil of insecurity, pain, and fear, I connect with the real love that lives in everything. In that place, I witness that the truest, purest, most authentic place of love that lives within me is the same love that emanates from the greenest trees, the sweetest mangos, the most majestic wildcat, the tiniest ants, the most bitter greens, and the thorniest bushes. It is the same love that lives within every single life form. Practicing yoga shows me that when I am love, love is all around me.