December 21, 2013

The Answer is Always Yoga.

The year is 1993. It is the first day of February. I am in the seventh grade.

Soon, I will get my first period. I run, slowly, for the Chisholm Trail Middle School cross country team. I’m not sure why I joined the cross country team. Getting up at dawn for morning practice gives me a queasy feeling.

Yoga was not part of mainstream American culture in the early 1990s. It was, of course, a fad in the sixties and seventies, which is why my mom owns a copy of Richard Hittleman’s 28-Day Yoga Exercise Plan, copyright 1969.

I’ve never actually heard of “yoga” before. My mind is open, unfettered by judgments or concepts—Beginner’s Mind.

The back cover of the pristine paperbook I pluck off the bookshelf announces “the opportunity to look lovelier, feel better and remain younger—in just 28 of the most important days of your life.” The advertising works. I am sold on yoga.

I whisk the book away to my pink bedroom and begin reading. This is a monumental moment, though of course I don’t know it at the time.

I latch onto yoga immediately. Unlike cross country, it doesn’t make me queasy. Just the opposite, actually. I feel privileged with a special, secret, spiritual path that would turn the awkward, adolescent me into beautiful and vivacious woman.

Every evening after family dinner, I retire to my room and consult the book’s step-by-step photographs and instructions, which lead me through twenty-eight increasingly challenging yoga routines.

Within a week, I feel a palpable shift within myself. In two weeks, I teach myself to balance in headstand. I witness my spine and hamstrings gain elasticity day by day.

I feel the thrill of pride at finding the self-discipline to practice every night. The routines take about half an hour. My perseverance and self-discipline give me the motivation to tackle undesirable tasks, like Texas history homework.

After diligently completing Mr. Hittleman’s program, I practice on and off using his book alone throughout high school. For Christmas in 1999, my parents give me Beryl Bender Birch’s books, Power Yoga and Beyond Power Yoga. She blows my mind with sun salutations.

Meanwhile, yoga is getting crazy popular again in the United States.

In January of 2001, some coworkers invite me to a yoga class at the gym. I’d been so used to practicing on my own at home that going to a class with other people had never even crossed my mind. During class, I decide that I want to be a yoga teacher when I grow up. I befriend and interrogate the instructor. She gushes about how much she’d loved her month-long teacher training at an ashram in Canada.

I don’t know what an ashram is, but I look it up online, get the brochure, apply and am accepted. I see no need to investigate any other teacher training options.

At the same time, I am on the brink of a quarterlife crisis. As I approach my senior year of college, I begin to regret having chosen advertising as my professional path in “the real world,” but it’s too late to switch now. My deepening spiritual practice is disrupting my status quo. In my mind, I am doing more harm than good.

I obsess over my life’s true purpose. Yoga or advertising? It can’t be both.

I go to teacher training and fail miserably. 

Words really cannot express how low I feel. It is my first depression and maybe the worst, because I truly believe that it will never end. That it is my new state of being, for all time.

I’ve taken a month off from work, and I am not about to go back early. The oppressive Texas heat keeps me indoors and moping on the couch. The broken record playing in my mind tells me that I am the epitome of a pathetic loser; I cannot even do my favorite thing right.

I go to therapy, get diagnosed with clinical depression and get a prescription for antidepressants. Unable to motivate myself to practice, I spend a whole lot of time in child’s pose.

My therapist orders, “You have to go back to work,” and so I do, although my productivity level is still alarmingly low.

Of course, depression doesn’t last forever. Within a few months, I recover my inspiration, pick myself up off, dust myself off and sign up for a Hatha Yoga teacher training at a local studio.

In May of 2002, I graduate from the University of Texas with my undesired Bachelor’s degree in Advertising on the very same weekend that I complete my yoga training.

Nowadays, over 20 years after my first encounter with yoga, I am still breathing mindfully and deeply.

Yoga has helped me manage bouts of serious mental illness. It has reduced my stress level and increased my capacity for patience, compassion and joy.

I have, with years of consistent practice, learned to usually feel grateful for whatever each moment brings, even the difficult ones. As the Zen proverb says, every day is a good day.

I aim to be okay with not knowing. I try to let go of the illusion of control, over and over. (And over.) Yoga is a lifelong process.

The answer is always yoga. The more you do it, the better you get and the better you feel. The better you feel, the better you will be able to positively influence those around you.

Yoga has given me the priceless gift of embodying the present moment without grasping at it. It can, and will, do the same for you.

This is an excerpt from chapter one of Michelle’s memoir, Yoga Schmoga.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Image: yoga_freedom/Flickr Creative Commons

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