What’s more interesting (and lends itself to huge debate) is the reasons people choose to keep practicing yoga. Some people do it for the physical workout; some people love the community aspect. For some, it is a spiritual practice, and for others it’s part of physical or emotional healing.
As Jenn and I were talking about this recently, we realized that—among its many other benefits—yoga is a big part of our friendship with ourselves. We don’t just do it for the way it makes our muscles look and feel; we do it to keep from going crazy.
The first time I went to yoga, it was because my kickboxing class was cancelled at the gym on campus. Before that, I thought of yoga as something to do on days off, you know…not a “real” workout. It was a Power Yoga-esque class, which I quickly fell in love with and began an on and off affair that led to something much deeper than sculpting my muscles and loosening up my fascia. In yoga, I found something that could still my mind as well.
I have a busy mind. I remarked to a friend the other day that I felt like if people could see inside my mind for about 10 or 15 minutes, they’d be amazed at how much I get accomplished, given the rapid fire pace and shiny distractedness going on up there. But when I practice yoga, something interesting happens. It doesn’t draw everything immediately to a point of calming the citta vritti, but it let’s me surf those waves of the mind without falling quite so often.
In other words, yoga keeps me sane.
Most mornings, I have a date with my mat. It usually begins with a few Sun Salutations, moves into the Primary Series and ends with the standard Ashtanga closing postures. And then other days, like many days this summer while dealing with illness, it’s a Yin practice. It’s sinking into Frog pose and staying there until I truly open up.
But the specifics of the asanas I choose, or the music, or the time of day are small in comparison to what it does for me as a person. It’s the time I have committed to dealing with myself, to looking at myself honestly and honoring that self as a beloved friend. It’s a little over an hour of my day—whether in a class at the studio or at home alone—that is only about making peace with me. (And yet, the wonderful twist here is that when I make peace with me, it’s much easier to make peace with everyone else too.)
When I studied with Bo Forbes, I learned some amazing things about the correlation between posture and mood, and how the impact they have on each other works in either direction. When we feel depressed, we often slump over, but when we slump over, that can depress our mood as well. Choosing to get on my mat and adjust my physical body allows me to adjust my attitude as well.
I don’t always want to deal with my demons. Sometimes I’d just rather stay in my bad mood, be grumpy and hibernate. But taking that time to go there, to adjust and open up even when I’d rather not is what keeps a momentary bad mood from becoming a month of bad mood. I can’t change the weather. I can’t change other people’s reactions. I can’t change the traffic. I can’t change the million little things that aggravate me (including that woman who is determined to wear Angel perfume by the gallon), but I can move my body, and in doing so, change my mind.
Iyengar said that, “it is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity.” It’s one of my favorite quotes…maybe it’s because I’m a kinesthetic learner, or maybe it’s because I love to dance. But maybe more than that, I fall in love with this practice time and time again because it takes those patterns of moving my breath and moving my body to get out of my head.
To love anything, really, is much like building a fire. You need the wood. You need good, dry wood that is ready to burn to fuel the fire. You need a spark—that’s essential, of course. But most of all, you need space. You need the air and the space between to keep the fire going. For me, yoga teaches me how to have that space. It creates the space I need to keep that spark going and to fall in love with life, over and over again.
I practice yoga so I don’t go crazy.
Or make my husband crazy.
Or screw up my kids (worse).
Because today was one of the worst days of my life. And I know that this sounds melodramatic or like I’m exaggerating but, seriously, today was not a good day.
It was the kind of day that I felt like tearing my hair out and screaming at the top of my lungs and going to sleep for multiple days in a row.
But I can’t.
And that car ride that I took my daughter on so that she could relax in the backseat while I silently sobbed in the front seat was bad enough behavior for a mom, and a stay-at-home yogi.
Yet, sometimes, we have to feel the world as it spins around us, as it makes us dizzy, as we get enveloped by a sea of frustration and overwhelming responsibilities—and my yoga practice is what centers me and brings me back in. It takes me back to who I am, with or without life’s white noise.
And who I am is someone who occasionally—okay, often—needs reminders to pause and take in my life, the good, bad and ugly, and breathe through it all one breath at a time.
I can do anything one breath at a time.
I can sit deeply in chair pose, one breath at a time.
I can lift my heart higher in camel pose, one breath at a time.
I can recline in savasana and allow my physical practice to sink in, to change me, to make me better for the rest of my day, and my life, one breath at time.
On the other hand, when I can’t make it to the yoga studio or, being a mom, get enough silent time for a truly in-tune yoga practice, I can be left feeling unsettled and, worse, unprepared for the stressors of daily life.
And I might steal 20 minutes to release tension and yesterday’s emotional burdens from my hip tissues while my daughter plays with her train set, but this isn’t the same as a genuine yoga practice, where I focus on my breath, my movement, myself. But that’s life sometimes too—having too much on our plates and not enough breathing room.
So I think of that day a few weeks ago when I left the yoga studio, sweaty and feeling glorious, and I picked up my water and paint-covered child from school and, on the way home to clean us both up and eat lunch, we got into a car accident. And I was frustrated for several reasons and I was angry at the other driver for many reasons too, and I realized that my yoga practice that day had not been on a purple jade mat as I had incorrectly thought only 20 minutes prior, but it was in that instance standing next to my car with another woman and a police officer.
My practice that day was this space, when I focused consciously on slowing my breath and dealing with the situation at hand one inhale at a time, and with each exhale I told myself to be kind. I just stood there on hot asphalt inhaling and exhaling and repeating my mantra silently, “be kind, be kind, be kind”—that was my yoga.
And that’s the thing about being a mom, and a wife, and a writer, and a yoga practitioner and a human being—these are all just titles that somehow tag us for the way that we live our lives, but they don’t really say anything about who we are, underneath labels and bad days and skin.
So, yes, I practice physically on my mat so that I don’t go crazy, because some days—the ones when I want to tear my hair out and scream at the top of my lungs and go to sleep for multiple days in a row—challenge every ounce of who I am and I can forget that the “me” underneath this swirling chaos is someone calm and capable of handling anything, one breath at a time.
And I’ll step on my purple jade mat again tomorrow, inhaling as I reach my palms up towards the sky, exhaling as I bow over my legs, but I’ll take with me that my practice extends far, far beyond my yoga mat—and so do I.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Rob Casey at Pixoto