I had never practiced yoga consistently before.
When I took on the 30-day challenge I had never even considered yoga to be a form of exercise with similar benefits to those you get from, say, running on a treadmill or lifting weights.
I’m no super-athlete though.
I used to run. Once, I completed three half-marathons over three consecutive weekends. I was one of the last 30, or sometimes the last five, runners to cross the finish line.
Cue my birthday month circa 2013.
I was in a hot yoga class led by a teacher I like. I’ve taken her classes before. She reads quotes from writers and other great thinkers during rest poses. No matter what, she always goes around the room taking down names and starting her class with the reminder that being in the room, in this moment, was a gift. She says, “Set an intention for yourself or someone you love before we begin.”
But it would take super-human mindfulness to stay completely present in this soul-curdling heat, which triggered all kinds of discomfort. I did my best. I imagined bolting from the furnace to a freezer, or guzzling a jumbo vanilla fro-yo with fresh lychees, dried coconut shavings and a drizzle of warm, gooey caramel.
Then she shared her “birthday month” challenge with us.
The rules of the month-long challenge were fairly simple: 30 consecutive days of class (90-minute class, 104°F/40°C at 40 % humidity) with two break days that had to be made up by doing two doubles on two days before the challenge ended.
I was intrigued. I decided to accept the challenge. My vanilla fro-yo dreams melted away into my mat.
During my first month of the challenge I’d trapeze all over New York City to fit in the day’s class, and timing was largely dependent on when I finished my full-time job.
My social life was non-existent, but what was magical was that I was completely aligned and connected—in deep conversation with myself.
I heard every thought, whimper and feeling with immense clarity. I found myself in an open-heart space and not only was I experiencing something new, but my community of friends expanded too. Amazing people—people I would not have met had I not taken on the challenge—entered my life. I became friends with men and women of different ages and backgrounds who had an open mind and a giving spirit—men and women who are still shining their light in my life today.
I just couldn’t stop after day 30.
I completed 65 mind, body and soul-detoxifying days of healing, strengthening and practicing complete loving acceptance of my life and myself.
Here are five life-changing lessons I learned during those 65 days. I hope they will give you a glimpse of the possibilities that yoga can create for us…
1. It’s about progress, not perfection.
If you are anything like me you like order. You seek perfection in every task you take on, in work and in your personal endeavors. From a young age I have been a deep thinker. Delving into the details is a natural trait of mine, as is problem solving, so you can imagine that learning something new and having a beginner’s mindset was unfamiliar territory for me. Eliminating stories like, “I have fallen out of a posture and therefore I have failed” and “if a posture isn’t perfect, the entire effort is wasted,” became easier to work through while journaling in the mornings after a refreshing, restful sleep.
As the days passed my focus became about showing up and embracing the wisdom my body was funnelling through me.
2. Healing and release comes in the form of sweat and sometimes tears.
I remember day 19 vividly. I was on my mat doing a five-minute Savasana (corpse or rest pose) after class. Without warning I was greeted with all kinds of old memories that I thought I had packed away and made peace with: conniving bosses, negative conversations with friends, energy-draining co-workers, heartbreak at the hands of boys who I mistook for men, an ancient breakup and crude remarks from married female friends. All at once these memories re-pummeled my universe.
I think the most surprising—because this had not actually happened—was seeing myself standing on a train platform where no trains showed up, with nobody at the station other than me. I just kept waiting.
A tsunami of pain and bitterness washed over me as I watched and witnessed, frame by frame, those acts of unkindness all over again. I witnessed without judging what my mind’s eye saw, and I’d like to think that in these moments where sweat met tears, a forgiving light enveloped me. All these fragments of history were being prodded and evicted from their comfortable, rent-free lodgings in my hips, back and shoulders.
That night as I wrote in my journal I felt 30 pounds lighter, both emotionally and physically. That night I finally made peace with my past, forgave myself and thanked all of these energies that had crossed my path. I moved forward.
3. The heat is never the problem—your response to the heat is the problem.
You can apply this mantra to almost any situation you face in life. It’s never the situation we find ourselves in, but the way in which we chose to process and respond to the situation. Not everyone can withstand the kind of heat and humidity that a Bikram yoga studio, or any hot yoga studio for that matter, pushes you through. And neither could I when I first started. Heat deepens your poses because your muscles are warm and malleable. After about two weeks my body adjusted wondrously and I hardly paid any attention to the heat—it became my strongest ally in this experience.
When I made friends with heat my focus got better, and with this lovely shift my practice flourished. I also find that when I apply this “friendship” principle to any challenging situation, I tend to succeed with the least amount of friction for everyone involved.
4. Flexibility in body nurtures fluidity in mind.
My definition of flexibility varies in comparison to the images popular media propagate: lithe bodies wrapping their legs around their necks or doing fancy headstands. To me, flexibility is grace in movement—strength and agility of the mind.
If you can bend, stretch or move even a micro inch more than you could from the day before, or from when you began, then you are flexible in my books. You are working through your blocks and are building strength over a period of time. Going from posture to posture or navigating through challenging life situations with a warrior’s heart, and holding compassion for my fellow human souls, was an honorable lesson to learn. This is the lesson I am most thankful for.
5. Doing anything worthwhile takes time.
I grapple often with knowing and believing that where I am in my life’s journey is where I am meant to be in this exact moment. In our society where instant gratification is the norm and fame can be achieved without hard work, I’d say it is worthwhile to engage in anything that takes time and discipline to achieve.
To truly connect we must delay gratification, slow down and take on tasks mindfully. We must avoid riding the easy, mind-numbing motions of life’s rollercoaster.
Pause. Breathe. Be still and reassess. Find solitude and have deeper conversations with yourself—find out what drives you and if it could in turn help someone along their journey. These are the types of worthwhile questions that I now grapple with.
While I’d wholeheartedly recommend a challenge like mine to anyone, perhaps 65 days is not necessary.
Maybe try a 30-day “birthday month challenge” instead (and we can exchange notes).
I think what’s most important is to push our perceived limitations and hopefully, develop a practice that allows us to find our center through movement.
The tiny self-discoveries we are exposed to through yoga have the potential to act as beacons for where we are now and where we want to be. They also infuse us with compassion for everyone who contributes to our life experience—positively or otherwise.
Author: Neelam Tewar
Apprentice Editor: Savannah Robinson; Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Image: Kullez/ Flickr