I tend to think of myself as an easygoing, carefree type of person.
Do you know why I think that? It’s because, clearly, the version of myself that exists inside my head has never met my actual self.
In reality, I am often anxious, self-critical, obsessively analytical. I am frequently tense without even being consciously aware of the tension. So “difficulty-paralyzed and worry-imprisoned” would be truer terms to describe my natural state of being than “easygoing and carefree.”
I realized that about myself in yoga class. That’s right, I admit it, I’m the kind of person who goes to yoga class, and, moreso, I am the kind of person who learns things about myself in yoga class that I take with me off the mat.
Furthermore, I am now the kind of person who uses the term “take with me off the mat” and who writes about those yoga-derived insights on a blog despite the fact that I’m not in as good shape as I should be and that not one of my poses (including child’s pose and corpse pose) is anywhere near ready to qualify for a Yoga Journal photo shoot.
Go ahead and chuckle if you will, I don’t mind. I laugh at myself all the time. It’s actually pretty fun. I am done with detachment, with being too cool to show enthusiasm for the things that matter to me, with being afraid of being ridiculed, labeled weird or flaky or out there or not good enough. I guess a few brushes with death will do that to you.
I say this in complete seriousness: yoga saved my life. Okay, maybe I wouldn’t literally be dead if I didn’t practice yoga, but at the very least, yoga has, at times, prevented me from staying in bed and crying under the covers all day long.
Because I don’t know about you, but I, for one, find life to be hard as hell.
And I say that as a person who spends her work days in a safe, climate-controlled beautiful corner office doing mentally-challenging, (mostly) rewarding tasks and who gets to spend her down time with a tall, handsome husband who’s never cruel or critical, who is brilliant and funny and does a thousand things to make life easier and enjoyable, as someone with a supportive, wonderful, colorful, creative family and an easy-as-pie relationship with a loving, talented, sweet stepson. I know I enjoy a privileged existence, but a few short years ago, none of those things were true.
I began suffering chronic hip pain in my early thirties, which resulted in a celiac disease diagnosis that left me struggling to learn how to eat gluten-free and how to accept the fact that I would need a hip replacement before age 35. That’s around the time I made a trip home to the beach and my dear friend Jessica got me to come to her yoga class.
I remember that first class well. It was small, seven or eight students, and obviously I knew and trusted the instructor, but I found myself with my heart racing almost as if from stage fright before we even got started. I felt so out of place. I didn’t know any of the pose names, was out of synch and frequently on the wrong side from everyone else, and I made the rookie mistake of wearing my normal workout clothes: shorts and a big, loose T shirt. It was during my first downward dog, with that T shirt falling over my head and my shorts legs riding up, that I realized yogis wear form-fitting shirts and pants for very practical reasons, not out of vanity.
But I tucked in the shirt, ignored what everyone else looked like in their well-practiced poses, and kept trying. By the end of class, lying in savasana, my whole body felt simultaneously like it was melting into the floor and floating above it: relaxed, light, alive. I was sold.
I haven’t always practiced as regularly as I should, but I have been fortunate over the years to have found a number of excellent yoga teachers, and I give them a well-deserved public shout-out: Jessica Graham Robinson, Stacey Millner-Collins, Maria Gelabert, and Gayle Stefanelli.
One of the things these wonderful yogis have taught me is to identify the signs of tension where they’re hiding in your body. For me, it’s usually a grimace or a clenched jaw or hunched up shoulders or tight quads. The first step, and that in itself was a big one for me, is recognizing these subconscious ticks.
I know, like you probably do, some things you are supposed to do when you’re stressed out to help you relax: pray, meditate, listen to soothing music, visualize your happy place. But, for me at least, none of those things work all that well. I can mentally tell myself to calm down, and the result is generally my inner voice responding, “I can’t calm down! How can I calm down! Everything is terrible! I know that stressing and panicking doesn’t make things less terrible, but I can’t help it.” And then I’m tenser than I was to begin with because, in addition to everything else, I’m a failure at relaxing.
That’s where the practice of yoga has been such a lifesaver for me. I don’t care what dark feelings are swirling inside you, when you step on that mat and get into tree pose or crane or warrior three, your mind is occupied on doing all the things it takes for you to avoid falling over: distributing your weight evenly across your foot, engaging your thighs and your core, finding a focus point for your eyes. Then on making sure your spine is straight and your shoulders are back and down and, of course, on taking those deep yoga breaths. There is simply no room left in your head for anything that isn’t helping you stay upright in that moment. There is no room for bullshit. Giving yourself that gift for even just an hour a week is one of the best ways I know to treat yo self.
Because let’s face it, we all have good reason to be tense. As nice as my life is now, I still have inevitable dark moments, as I know you do too. When terrible things happen in the world like Friday’s horrifying attacks, or when my foot was throbbing in agony from a copperhead bite and the engine of the boat that was taking me to meet the ambulance conked out, or when I was told they found some cancer cells on my very first mammogram, and then again the next year, after I was supposed to have been cured, or both times that I was jacked up on a table with doctors working beneath me like I was a car at the mechanic during long and painful biopsies, or when I was in a hospital gown with an IV stuck in my hand waiting terrified for surgery, or when I woke up writhing in pain and fighting nausea for days–on all of those occasions, I remembered my yogi whispering, “Send breath where you need it.” And I remembered my yogi pointing out that, when you are putting in a great deal of effort in a difficult pose, you can still relax and tap into calmness even in that moment.
I focused on my breath and clung to those wise words, which were more powerful than abstract platitudes or sermons. On each of those raw and too-real days, with each deep breath, I was able to grasp onto some calmness, but only because the words my teachers said aloud had been proven to me in a concrete way, written into my muscle memory through my practice. I knew from hard work and experience that how a pose feels in the first breath is not how it will feel in the fourth breath, or the eighth, or the twelfth. Only then was I able to avoid panic, to find tranquility in duress, to remember that everything is temporary, even the pain of the present moment, and that there is always a way through to the other side, to peace and comfort.
And, in the scheme of things, that is no small victory.