When my family traveled to Iceland last summer, we spent a day traversing the interior of the island. The landscape we drove through was stunning in its very bleakness. It is the closest thing on earth to a moonscape – in fact, it is the place NASA chose to train its astronauts for moon landings. Grey fields strewn with lava rock merge into the ice and mud of massive glaciers. The temperature was easily twenty degrees colder than it was to the north and south. The wind was relentless – ripping across the wide open space. We went entire hours without seeing another vehicle or even an animal.
My youngest described feeling “reverse claustrophobic” – she felt trapped by the sheer emptiness of the place. I felt profoundly insignificant. The thought of being lost in that wasteland was terrible. I could easily empathize with the panic convicted criminals must have felt when they were exiled to the interior as the consequence for their misdeeds. I was distracted by my musings when we stopped to take what would be our most striking picture of the interior – a tiny, red hut floating on a sea of gray.
It wasn’t long, however, before my anxious feelings flooded back. It turned out that the miniscule shelter was the only available refuge for tens of miles for hikers crossing the interior. “How do they find this place?,” I asked. “They have to plan their route really carefully,” my husband and son responded in unison. “It’s not enough to use a compass because of the crazy magnetics up here.” My confusion must have been evident, as they launched into a lengthy and (at least from my perspective) overly detailed discussion of “True North” vs. “Magnetic North” which left me confident that I had no business (ever!) hiking the interior of Iceland.
The thought of trekkers wandering miles off course on that Arctic tundra because of a magnetic snafu gave me chills to match those I felt from the cold wind. For the first time in my life, I finally understood the power behind the expression “finding your true north.” On that unforgiving terrain, in that extreme climate, being even one degree off the planned route could be a death sentence. For a hiker in the interior of Iceland, staying on course or maintaining “true north” is nothing short of imperative.
For those of us seeking to find our way through times of challenge, crisis, or disappointment, “finding our true north” is no less imperative. On life’s journey, there are plenty of times when we are uncertain of where we stand, of where we are headed or of what the right path is for us personally. Being able to discern our “true north” enables us to stay on that path. While we may not have an actual compass in our hand, we are buffeted by clutter and chaos that can put us off course just as quickly as the magnetic variations that can cause hikers to lose their way.
Peer pressure, gossip, anxiety, competition, and so forth can form a kind of “atmospheric clutter” that can put us off course. If we allow ourselves to fall prey to worries about what others think or want or do, we can easily lose sight of what we think, or want or hope to do. Chaos – the kind that occurs in the heat of the moment – can also pull us off course. In the middle of an argument, we may speak or behave in a way that dismays us later. If forced to make a snap decision, we may not have the wherewithal to get a full perspective on the issue and simply side with the majority. Especially in instances when our right path is also the harder path or Robert Frost’s proverbial “path less traveled,” chaos – internal or external – can easily send us off course onto the path of least resistance.
In short, when we lose sight of our true north, we get lost. While we may not freeze to death as a result, losing our true north in life can be profoundly devastating. While we may not be miles away from the only tiny shelter in a massive wasteland, finding our way back to who we are and what we believe and what really matters to us can be a mightily challenging journey.
Mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation can help us stay on course. Regularly setting aside time to be quiet, to look within at our emotions and feelings, to become familiar with our thought patterns, helps us to better understand ourselves. It helps us to develop awareness of our habits, our weaknesses and our strengths. It helps us become more comfortable pausing during times of chaos. It helps us see more clearly despite any clutter swirling around us. While mindfulness practices will not insure that we’ll never lose our way, they can make it easier for us to get back on course if we drift. Again, by keeping us intimately connected to the nudges of our conscience, the tightening of our gut in moments of fear or confusion, and even to our highest hopes and dreams, practices like yoga can serve as a light to illuminate the way back to the path that is right for us.
Much as a hiker in the interior of Iceland needs to pause repeatedly along his or her way to carefully calculate and recalculate true north in order to arrive at that tiny, red hut for the night, pausing regularly along our way through life is critical. A daily time of quiet contemplation on your yoga mat or meditation cushion is a powerfully effective way to pause. It is in these pauses that we can separate from the clutter and chaos of our lives and reconnect with our “true north.”
Though you may use a different name for it, if you have ever had a cat or dog you are familiar with what our family refers to as “the rips.” This is when, out of the clear blue, your pet leaps up and begins dashing madly around the house. You know when you fill a balloon all the way up and then let it go? That’s what it looks like when our cat, Jake, gets the rips. There is no predicting which way he’ll zig or zag, or whether he’ll hurl himself up or down the stairs. He is simply flying through the house, careening on an explosion of pent up energy. It’s hilarious to watch.
I watch Jake rip around the house and our puppies sprint in crazy circles through the yard with a little awe. I can’t recall ever suddenly springing up and running pell-mell anywhere. And, come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen anyone else do this either. In fact, watching my furry nut jobs the other day made me wonder if people build up explosive levels of energy like dogs and cats. And then I thought of my teen-aged daughters whose mood swings can explode as suddenly and as insanely through the house as any case of “the rips” I’ve ever witnessed. It’s less hilarious to watch.
Yes, we all build up energy that needs to be released. But, because of our more developed minds and more complex emotions, when the cork pops on our pent up energy, the explosion is more likely to come from our mouths than from our bodies. Perhaps because all that energy is being expelled through a smaller opening, the force of the explosion and its aftermath is often more significant than a good case of “the rips” in a pet. While my dogs may tear up some grass and my cat might knock over a picture frame, this damage is nothing compared to that wrought by ill-considered words blurted out in the heat of an explosive release.
Which is to say, we should try to avoid these energetic explosions. This is why we walk our dogs daily and why it’s smart (not to mention, fun) to spend a few minutes tossing a wad of tinfoil for the cat to chase. In other words, it’s important to build something into our days that provides a regular release of energy.
Interestingly, though our explosions tend to be more verbal and emotional than physical, they can be avoided (or minimized) by a physical release. Taking a run, going for a swim, hiking through the woods, or playing a game of tennis are all great ways to blow off steam. They’re even more effective if you leave your phone at home and just focus on running, walking or playing. Let yourself be as completely consumed by your physical experience as my pets are in their periodic “rips.” This focus helps you release not just physical energy, but it clears your head and sorts through emotional clutter.
There is nothing like working up a good sweat to reset a foul mood, set the stage for a great idea or get you ready to navigate the rest of your day. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that practicing yoga is an even better choice. Yoga is the perfect reset button. Because the practice engages us at every level – physically, mentally and emotionally – it changes us at every level, too. Yes, yoga leaves us sweaty and pleasantly tired. But it also leaves us with a clearer head and a better sense of how we’re feeling.
After practicing yoga, we’re much less likely to react to our feelings or to jump to conclusions. We’re simply more settled and centered. Not only do we feel less pent up emotionally, but we’re more aware that these feelings are fleeting. Because of this newfound awareness, if we find ourselves in a challenging situation after practicing, we’re much more likely to pause, take a deep breath and then to choose our response mindfully. We’re much more likely to act like the person we hope to be.
This has certainly been the case with me. While I still have my moments (which I sincerely wish exploded in “the rips” rather from my mouth), they are much fewer and further between than before I began practicing yoga. I am better able to tell when my energy is building up and get to my mat before I need to don a warning sign that says, “She’s gonna blow!” Better yet, all my practice is making me better at breathing through these feelings or thoughts as I wait for them to pass.
Why not give it a try? The next time thoughts and feelings are circling through your head and heart as crazily as my dogs tear around the yard, do something physical to help release that coiled up energy. Take yourself for a run, a hike or a swim. Go smash the tar out of a tennis ball. Better yet, unroll your mat and move and breathe. You’ll be glad you did. (Perhaps even gladder than the innocent bystanders in your life.)
When I was in second or third grade, I happily played “Little House on the Prairie” at recess every single day. I absolutely loved to escape into the story of Ma and Pa, Laura, Mary and Carrie Ingalls. One afternoon the girl who played Mary to my freckle-faced Laura didn’t show up. I saw her across the playground on the kickball field and ran to get her. As I approached, she rolled her eyes and said (loud enough for all the kickball kids to hear), “I’m not playing that stupid baby game with you. Grow up.”
In an instant, I was crushed. My friend had been mean. Worse, I was suddenly “out” and other kids were “in.” I hadn’t known such a thing was possible and my innocent perception of the world around me shifted dramatically. Out of the blue, I felt vulnerable for being me. (Not to mention, our beloved recess game was forever ruined. I’m pretty sure we never played again.)
Looking back at the little girl I once was, I’m sad for her. Not because my friend was mean. And not because I found myself at the bottom of a social totem pole I didn’t even know existed. That’s just life, right? An important, albeit painful, part of growing up.
I’m sad for that little girl because she would spend years trying to avoid this ever happening again. She was super nice, super helpful and super agreeable. She tried to be so nice, in fact, that no one would ever dream of being mean to her or shunning her again.
The good news is that the little girl was a pretty nice person to begin with. (If I do say so myself.) But still, sometimes she didn’t feel super friendly or super helpful or super agreeable. Sometimes she disagreed strongly. Sometimes she was grouchy. Sometimes she didn’t like what a friend was doing. Sometimes she had her own ideas of what would be fun or what was right or what was wrong. And, for a very long time, because she was afraid of being vulnerable, she kept those feelings and ideas to herself. Which really means that she kept herself hidden away.
I expect we all have a story like this. Moments like this are, unfortunately, an essential part of growing up into a strong, confident YOU. How long it takes us to do this growing up, however, varies wildly depending on temperament, sensitivity, natural confidence and so on.
As I still can be when I feel vulnerable, I was a little slow to stretch into this lesson. This is to say that I spent many years prioritizing being the person I thought others wanted me to be over the person I really was – not to mention the best person I could be. I spent many years worried about not being deemed OK or not being accepted, rather than deeming myself perfectly OK as I was.
Thank goodness I found yoga. This practice meets you exactly where you are and showers you with its gifts. Yoga doesn’t care if you’re strong or weak – it will make you stronger (and not just physically). Yoga doesn’t care if you’re flexible or stiff as a board – it will make you more flexible (and not just in your body). Yoga simply asks you to show up – as you are – and practice.
If you show up as you are not, things do not go well. If I had tried to pretend that I was stronger than I was when I first started practicing, I would have found myself flat on my face many times. If I had pretended to be more flexible than I really was, I would have gotten hurt. In fact, practicing yoga left me no choice but to modify the postures and movements so they were suitable for me until I was strong enough and flexible enough to do more.
Excitingly, becoming stronger and more flexible happened each day — and each day I was thrilled to find I could do more. This meant that I began to love showing up day after day as I was. While it was exciting to witness change, growth and development, this wasn’t the real gift. The real gift that the practice gave me was becoming profoundly comfortable showing up day after day on my mat as authentically me. As always, yoga’s lessons worked their way into the rest of my life almost effortlessly. In other words, yoga has made it easy and exciting for me to be me most of the time.
It turns out that I still don’t like to be deemed unworthy. (I suspect you don’t either.) It stinks when someone doesn’t like you. It hurts when your faults are pointed out. Despite knowing that not everyone is going to like us, despite being all too aware that none of us is perfect and despite (sadly) knowing that we will all encounter a mean girl or boy every once in a while, we still sometimes pour a surprising amount of energy into being good or nice or accepted. Which is – tragically – energy we divert from being ourselves.
As much as I don’t like to be judged or to be disliked, however, I really don’t like it when I’m not being myself. It simply feels wrong. All the practice I’ve had being me on my mat has given me the strength to find a way to be myself in most any situation. And, when I fall back into childish ways and “hide” behind a mask of goodness or niceness, the lessons I’ve learned about being true to myself give me the awareness and flexibility to take a deep breath and try again.
I hope you will take a deep breath and try again, too. The world is a better place when you and I both remember that we are perfectly OK right now.