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January 12, 2014

Why I Practice Yoga.

My friend Joy wrote a blog yesterday and bravely asked herself: Why do I practice yoga?

Which made me wonder—why do I?

On a very practical level, I started practicing yoga over a decade ago because I wanted to get strong. I saw Madonna’s arms, heard that’s what she did and I wanted to look strong. Because I wasn’t.

Along the way, I had some very real goals. Handstands, Jump backs and Tick Tocks. Because I couldn’t.

And today, it’s ultimately to believe. Because, when the stakes are high and it really matters, the truth of the matter is—it’s faith I lack.

I think we can all agree that chiseled arms are a pretty simple and concrete goal. And whether that equates to true strength… well, it was a start. The asana goals along the way were a little more complicated and demanded even more strength, and I’m not just talking physical either. I had to muscle up and face some fear and tackle my own doubt—in myself.

I can honestly share, I’m pretty comfortable with what I’m made of. And I don’t need biceps or arm balances to prove I am strong. I know I am, at least, strong enough.

Still, I keep thinking back to a minister I once met. Our meeting had nothing to do with me and yet, that didn’t stop him from needling me. He said, “I know your problem.”

To which, I wanted to answer, “Really?  Just one?”

He pulled over a chair and asked me to have a seat—but just as I got low enough to sit, he told me to stop and hover and only sit when I needed to.

I thought, I can play this game. I practice yoga—ever heard of chair pose? Yeah, I can do this. I”m strong enough.  And so, like a game of chicken, I stayed, poised an inch above the seat.

Finally he asked, You tired?  Of course I was. Then why don’t you sit down?  Because I don’t need to, I can do this.

And then he said, that—right there—is your problem, Peg:

You play the part of someone with faith. You pretend you trust others, trust God. But you never give anyone the actual chance to hold and support you because you’re too damn strong. And because you’re not really sure any of it’s real. So when your ass is on the line, you won’t take the chance.

Why don’t you just sit down and surrender your weight… trust it’s there and will hold you. No one said you have to do this alone.

At the time, that was just crazy talk to me.

No one said I have to do this alone… but no one guaranteed anyone would be there to help either. That’s why most of my yoga practice these days has more to do with trusting my teacher than it does with any posture or series. At least, that’s where I can start.

Today, I heard my teacher ask a student, “Are you going to practice what you want to practice or are you going to practice what I’ve taught you?”

In Ashtanga, the stakes tend to be high. The practice asks a lot from us and it really is all hard work. From supta kurmasana in the first series to viparita salambasana in third, the truth is, these postures don’t even look safe. And absent a good teacher, they often aren’t.

So if we go it alone, we can only go so far.

And I want to go further. I’m ready. Baby steps in the practice room, trusting my teacher’s guidance and believing in the method. Baby steps in life, allowing myself to be vulnerable with those who love me and believing in their strength and willingness to hold me.  

Baby steps to a giant leap: God.

That’s why it doesn’t matter what yoga pose you see me post on Instagram or any of the crazy stuff I do each morning on my mat—because none of it really matters.

I want faith.

So now, that’s really what I am practicing—and why.

Vāsitthī.

I heeded all He said and left the world
And all its cares behind, and gave myself
To follow where He taught, and realize
Life in the Path to great good fortune bound. (137)
Now all my sorrows are hewn down, cast out,
Uprooted, brought to utter end,
In that I now can grasp and understand

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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: elephant archives, Joanna Darlington

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