July 11, 2013

Love Potion: How Yoga Blew Open My Imperfect Heart.

When I entered into yoga teacher training in 2012, one of our first assignments was to write an essay about the meaning of the word “yoga.”

Not the literal meaning, which most of us already knew or could easily Google if we didn’t. What our instructors wanted wasn’t the “right” answer, but our answer. Our personal definition of yoga, whatever that might be.

My answer came instantly: love.

A definition not so far, after all, from the literal definition: to yoke, to join, to be in union.

I first came to yoga as a young mother in my 20s, raising three kids ages five and under in a beautiful and lonely old Victorian, perched on a hill above a lake in a rural Minnesota town with a population of 500. I stayed home while my husband taught middle school full time in the city and, because money was tight, night school part time in our community. I guess you could say it’s no wonder I yearned to turn myself upside down and try to breathe.

Indeed I did spend an inordinate amount of time in headstand and bridge during those experimental, on-and-off years of practicing yoga at home, with no real idea what I was doing and with my only guidance coming from a couple of thrift store books and one meditation class taught by a wise master at our drafty local dance hall with its dusty wooden floors and mile-high ceilings.

Those years were very wonderful and very hard. As I said, I was lonely but also filled up with the kind of boundless love that is the great paradox of motherhood in modern America, where mothers (and the rest of us) are all too often more isolated than we should be.

I tried so hard to do it all perfectly. I formed playgroups and took up passions—like juicing vegetables and baking bread and homeschooling and lots and lots of alternative nature celebrations—just ask my kids about those spirit animal meditations they now remember with a mixture of hilarity and disbelief. I immersed myself in motherhood with joy and fervor. And meanwhile I started writing and publishing–articles, essays, a children’s book. Life was a daily adventure but never perfect.

Time passed. Things, as they so often do, changed. I took an editing job. We moved back to the city and enrolled our daughter, and then our son, in school. We turned 30. We hit stumbling blocks. We learned to jump. But still, we got divorced. It was the opposite of perfect. It was complicated and dark and awful and very hard on our kids. We both remarried. Enter stepparents. Stepsisters and brothers. More changes, more adjustments. More love? Yes. But nothing comes easy and perfection was off the table entirely.

Time passed. The kids grew older.

My firstborn daughter, Sophie, went off to the East Coast for college and fell in love herself. With college, that is. With the new world she found there. With the distance it gave her from her family. I was happy for her, and also sad with missing her. Then, three years ago, during her junior year, Sophie came home for a semester because she had accumulated so many college credits during high school that she could basically skip a year and still graduate on time. She didn’t want to skip a day, let alone a year, but for financial reasons we compromised on a semester.

When Sophie arrived that fall, I suggested that we join a yoga studio together. I had been wanting to for a while—since I’d never actually had any real guidance in yoga and had more or less abandoned it years ago (though my interest and desire never waned, just my will). Sophie was thrilled with the idea, since at college she played rugby and took part in a steady rotation of fitness classes. We started practicing together several times a week, and a funny, wonderful, life-changing thing happened. We grew closer. And closer. We talked about things, her life, my life. The past. The future. Each other. Scars. Dreams.

Sophie seemed to open up to me more than she had in years, and my heart was full up with wonder and joy. The love between us was always there—I knew that—but practicing yoga brought it to the surface in a way that made me cry again and again. I began to understand that wonderful need not be perfect.

When the semester ended and Sophie left for school in January, I was sad, but also happy because I knew I wouldn’t miss her as before. I knew the closeness we’d found through our practice wasn’t going anywhere. And it didn’t. To the contrary, it has deepened, and the language and love of yoga remains a shared joy. In fact, when Sophie moved to Gainesville after graduation, one of my gifts to her was a month-long membership at her local yoga studio.

After Sophie went back to college that winter, I had the good fortune to enjoy yoga regularly with my son, Max, and my younger daughter, Lillie. At 21 and 18 (almost, all three of my children have August birthdays, whatever that means!), they’re both incredibly busy these days, so neither practices with me regularly anymore. But they both weave in and out of classes often enough to be known by name, and to be known as my family. Even their friends, including boyfriends and girlfriends, have come along to the studio with us. We always have an extra mat for whoever happens to be at hour house when it’s time to go to class!

From time to time, my husband, the runner and the weightlifter, comes with me, too—despite finding yoga rather anxiety provoking. More to his liking was the mindfulness class he took last winter at a local meditation center. To my delight, Sophie, who was living at home at the time, enrolled in the class with him.

Beyond my immediate family, yoga has brought good friends into my life, as well, including one of my closest friends, Maria. Maria not only practices with me, but has also taught yoga and mediation at my writing workshops and retreats. We were casual friends for years but in the end, it was our bond through yoga through which our friendship and love deepened to a new and profound level.

Not only that, but my stepdaughter, Lily, came along on the retreat as coordinator extraordinaire, tending to every participant and to me with the utmost of grace and love. So although Lily does not practice yoga, yoga nonetheless opened a door for us to share a beautiful and intense experience—and we’ll do so again with more retreats happening over the fall and winter.

Ultimately, even my workshops themselves are the result of the love of yoga in my life. I’ve been writing and teaching writing for many, many years, but it was the deepening of my yoga practice through yoga teacher training combined with magic it worked in my relationship with Sophie that inspired me to enhance my work as a creative writing teacher with the heart-opening and transformative benefits of yoga and meditation.

So yes. For me, yoga is love. This life-changing practice has blown my heart open. It has opened worlds within me while at the same time opening me to the outside world. It has multiplied my ability to experience the richness and beauty of the people around me, whether they practice yoga with me or not. It has enriched my connection with complete strangers as well as with the people I love with all heart, which is softer and more open and no more perfect than before.



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{photo: author and her daughter, via Jeannine Ouellette}

Ed: B. Bemel

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