January 14, 2014

My Spiritual Path is Not A Straight Line. ~ Julie Kathryn

When I practice yoga, my life is better: I feel calmer, more productive and less inhibited.

I sing better. I write more compelling lyrics. I feel more confident on stage.

Of course, this is common sense. Yoga helps a lot of people.

But I’d also like to confess that my yogic journey has been circuitous and messy.

I’ve struggled to find my place as a yogi. I’ve “quit” practicing; I’ve switched disciplines; I’ve felt discouraged. Still, I’ve found my way back time and again, and I consider yoga an essential part of my life.

I began regularly practicing Vinyasa yoga nine years ago. I loved how serene and strong it made me feel, both mentally and physically. I relished the otherworldly calm I experienced during savasana.

A life-long musician, I finally faced my stage fright during this time and blossomed as a singer-songwriter. Yoga supported me in my musical journey, helping me feel confident and at ease, connecting with the world around me.

Then, in 2008, I fell down a flight of stairs in a New York City subway station. I remember lying on the concrete slab at the bottom of the stairs with the wind knocked out of me, wondering if I would ever play sing and guitar again. My right elbow was broken, and the cartilage in both of my wrists was torn. As a result of the fall, two painful cysts developed in my right wrist. I underwent surgery and physical therapy. I eventually began playing music again, albeit with intermittent pain.

Anxious to return to yoga, I attended my favorite Vinyasa class. We moved through the familiar asanas of the sun salutationplank, chaturanga, upward facing dog, downward facing dog. Searing pain radiated through my wrists.

Unfortunately, this pain persisted for days afterwards.

I returned to class two weeks later and asked the teacher to show me modifications to ease the pressure on my hands and wrists. She showed me how to use blocks and other props to alter the poses. But with these modifications, my practice felt halting and unsatisfying. I felt separate from the class, awkward and clumsy. And my wrists still felt uncomfortable.

I visited my wrist surgeon, who suggested I either undergo additional surgery (which I didn’t want) or simply not practice yoga anymore. He explained that sharp pain in my wrists was not a good sign.

So I stopped practicing.

My body and mind suffered. I was able to play guitar and piano because these activities do not put significant pressure on my wrists but creatively, I felt stagnant. I felt uncertain and self-conscious on stage. My posture worsened. I complained about my wrists and I dabbled in self-pity.

After a year, I couldn’t take it anymore; I needed yoga in my life. I spoke with my friend Debbie, who was dedicated to Bikram yoga. She explained that each Bikram class consists of the same 26 asanas, most of which do not put pressure on the wrists.

I began practicing Bikram several times per week, pleased that I was able to practice the entire series, with the exception of locust pose, which involves placing your hands and arms under the weight of your body. With time, I was even able to practice locust, which helped me gain some flexibility in my still unstable wrists.

My body felt stronger again. My singing and breathing were more natural. I felt more grounded on stage and I stood up taller. Practicing in the 105 degree heat of the Bikram studio improved my mental fortitude, which helped me in other stressful situations in my life. During class, especially after ustrasana, I experienced a deep emotional release.

These were the benefits of practicing Bikram. However, an important spiritual element was missing.

Google “Bikram yoga” and you’ll find headlines such as “Overheated, Oversexed Cult” and “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”. I’m not sure I would go this far, but I do find Bikram intense and competitive. The teaching style is rigid and uniform. Bikram is like boot camp; the emphasis is on having a great body and being the “best” you can be. To me, that doesn’t feel particularly spiritual. I realized Bikram could be a part of my practice, but not the centerpiece.

By this point, I had begun studying the Zen Buddhist practice of Zazen meditation with a spiritual teacher. From Zazen, which I still practice daily, I gained invaluable emotional balance. Seeking a yoga discipline that would complement this meditation, I attended a “Women’s Peace and Prosperity” Kundalini yoga workshop. I immediately felt awakened and vibrant, as if energy were literally burning and coursing through my body. It reminded me of when my hands have been so cold they were numb and I’ve run warm water on them to warm them up.

I began practicing Kundalini on a regular basis, and today it’s my preferred style of yoga, although I do still practice Bikram from time to time. I am drawn to the overtly spiritual nature of Kundalini; practitioners are encouraged to wear all white clothing in order to expand their auras and deflect negativity. I’m rejuvenated and challenged by the kriyas we practice, which consist of repetitive poses, as well as meditation, chanting and breathing exercises. Occasionally, we do practice asanas that place pressure on the hands and wrists, but for the most part I practice without pain. Whenever I feel sharp pain, I don’t push or judge myself.

Kundalini yoga’s central mantra, “Sat Nam”, can be translated as “Truth is my identity and I call upon the eternal Truth that resides in all of us.” Kundalini yoga is intended to awaken the body’s energies; chanting Sat Nam is said to awaken the soul. This feels true for me. As a singer, songwriter, musician and producer, I feel more conscious and inspired that I ever have before. I have learned that spirituality feeds creativity. Yoga is, and hopefully always will be, an integral part of my spiritual journey.

I also have learned that imperfection permeates everything.

The world is imperfect. I am imperfect. My body is imperfect. My yoga practice is imperfect. I am still a beginner.

My spiritual path is not a straight line.

All of this is true, and all of this is ok.

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Photo: elephant archives

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