[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”]Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe, say or do. Both are nonsense.” – Rick Warren[/mk_blockquote]
Every once in a while, I get a glimpse of the impact yoga can have on people. The other day, I overheard my husband, who has been practicing for three or four years, tell someone that the biggest thing he’s learned from yoga is acceptance. Life, he said, isn’t about making people more like you, it’s about living your life well. And to do that, you need to “work and play well with others.”
While I’m not actually sure what I would have chosen as the biggest lesson of the practice, this is certainly a powerful one. Yoga is profoundly accepting. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga, the style I practice and teach, is famous for having said that his yoga is for everyone. My experience corroborates this. I’ve taught young people and old people, stiff people and flexible, strong and weak, injured and well. None of these qualities has predicted or dictated how deeply yoga has been able to affect a person. All anyone has to do is show up, move and breathe and yoga will share its gifts. Yoga is pretty indiscriminate.
Practicing yoga (and watching yoga accept me exactly as I am each day) has made me more accepting of myself. I have learned to see more clearly. Because I face them daily, I now recognize weaknesses that I may have ignored before. But, again because I face them daily, I have learned not to judge myself too harshly. I know that, with time and with practice, these weaknesses will gradually disappear to be replaced by newfound strengths. As I’ve learned to be more accepting of my own weaknesses, it’s become much easier to treat others the same way.
Through my practice, I have become aware of many habits and tendencies. I’ve noticed how I respond to fear. I’ve noticed how I manage success. I’ve noticed when I work hard and when I get lazy. Most importantly, I’ve noticed that the simple act of noticing a habit is enough to initiate change and growth. Nothing about me is fixed in stone. I am a work in progress. If this is true of me, it is certainly true of everyone else. Knowing this deepens the levels of acceptance that I feel for myself and for the people I share my life with.
Yoga has also helped me recognize my strengths – inside and out. This awareness has lead to confidence, but not pride. Rather than assuming I’ve got it all figured out, and deciding that it’s “my way or the highway,” as it were, I find myself curious about what others have figured out. While some of what works for me may help you, and vice versa, this is not always true. Sometimes what works for me won’t work for you at all. This doesn’t make one of us right and one of us wrong. It simply makes us different.
And that is the thing. Acceptance is not an assumption or hope that we will one day – with time and with practice – all be the same. Not at all. Acceptance allows for (even celebrates!) our differences. When we keep space in our hearts and minds for the infinite differences and variations that make up humanity, we will learn and grow more than we can possibly imagine. Which, to get back to my husband’s words, is a great way to live this life well.
The light in me bows to and honors the light in each of you.
“’S a little song I wrote,
You may want to sing it note for note.
Don’t worry, be happy.
In every life we have some trouble,
But when you worry you make it double.
Don’t worry, be happy.
Don’t worry, be happy now.”
– Bobby McFerrin
As May has blurred into June (the busiest time of year for our family), I have noticed this classic song cycling through my head with one key word changed. “Don’t hurry, be happy” has become a bit of a mantra. As we dashed from regatta to banquet to concert and home, I hummed it. As we helped our girls sprint to and from the boathouse seven days a week for crew practice and then back to school for choir rehearsal or home to study or maybe even to sleep, I hummed it. As we bounced from graduation party to birthday party to dinner party to end of the year party, I hummed it.
“Don’t hurry, be happy.”
As I hummed, I was a little surprised to find that it worked. It worked well.
When I feel hurried, I don’t enjoy anything. I find I’m so focused on what else I have to do, that I miss out on what I’m actually doing. Teaching a yoga class, talking to a friend, listening to a great song, wrapping a gift are all things I enjoy immensely when I’m paying attention. When I’m hurrying, I’m not paying attention. Like worrying, hurrying sends your focus to the future. And, when you’re focused on the future, you’re distracted from the present, which is precisely where all of the gifts of your one precious life are stored.
When I feel hurried, I take short cuts. I skip two sun salutations to shave what is, in essence, maybe three minutes off my practice. To buy myself five extra minutes in my day, I don’t take the beautiful route to work. I don’t linger for a few minutes over dinner to listen to the story my daughter is telling. I don’t pause for a moment so the dogs can stare at the field full of robins. I (literally) don’t stop and smell the roses blooming outside my studio door. I don’t sit on the back step in a late afternoon sunbeam. In hindsight, the price of these short cuts is way too high to justify any “savings” that they yield.
When I hurry, I’m grouchy. Hurrying does not foster love and generosity. In fact, it inclines me toward selfish choices and leaves me feeling tight-hearted and tight-fisted. When I hurry, I’m impatient with my puppies, my children, my spouse and my friends. I don’t listen carefully. I choose to text rather than to call. I don’t think creatively. I’m short-tempered and sharp-tongued. I’m more likely to react than to act mindfully. In short, hurrying does not help me live like the person I want to be. This does not make me happy. Rather, at the end of a hurried day, I often feel very sad.
As I’ve hummed my way through May and on into June, I’ve learned something powerful. Hurrying doesn’t help me get more done. In fact, hurrying simply leaves me feeling hurried – rushed, stressed and distracted. Choosing not to hurry sometimes doesn’t even require a change of pace. It requires a change of approach. It requires you to tear your gaze away from the marathon that looms ahead, choosing instead to focus on each step along your way. I have found that slowing down a little to live into my mantra has not meant that I’ve achieved less or missed events or even (horrors) been late. What it has meant is that I’ve not only relished each item checked off my “To Do” list, but I’ve enjoyed many others that weren’t even on the list.
If I’d been hurrying, I would almost certainly have chosen not to answer the surprise call from my brother. I probably wouldn’t have taken my mom out for an impromptu birthday dinner. I definitely would have missed out on the gigantic belly laugh with my daughter. I’m sure I would have declined the sweet, walk in the woods with my husband and son. If I’d been hurrying, I would have missed out on some of the sweetest moments of my life in these last six weeks. And that’s simply a price way too high to pay.
“Don’t hurry. Be happy.” It works for me. I hope it does for you, too.
When we were little, my brother, sister and I loved watching magic “specials” on television. David Copperfield was our favorite. Even his “small” tricks could blow your mind. He would turn a chick into a bunny or pull dozens of scarves from his seemingly empty fist. His grand finales were fodder for endless hours of discussion. We would go on and on speculating about how he could saw through the box without hurting the woman inside. Or trying to wrap our heads around how he could make something big and heavy and so very real – like a safe or an actual person – disappear into thin air.
These shows inspired my brother. He was determined to do magic tricks of his own. He would practice for hours on sleight of hand feats with coins, learning to make them disappear and reappear in the strangest places. He learned card tricks where he could pick the exact card you’d chosen out of an entire deck. In the trick I liked the most, he would put a rubber ball into a cup. With a flourish of a scarf, he would “transform” the ball into a tiny toy bunny.
While I was happy to be my brother’s audience and even his assistant, to me magic was a spectator sport. I liked to watch it and I liked to think about it, but I had absolutely no interest in working magic of my own. Which is why it’s so amazing to me that I have spent the past decade and a half learning to do something so magical.
Yoga is magic, you see. It can change something into something else. It can make things disappear. It can help you manipulate the future and even to read minds.
While you won’t change into a bird or a bunny while on your mat, you will change. Yoga is, at its very essence, about transformation. You can see this within five breaths as you hold a posture. As you breathe in a forward fold, you witness your hamstrings lengthen beyond what was remotely possible when you first stepped on your mat. You can see this over months and years, as you look back and recall that the posture you now move into with ease and grace was once entirely out of reach. And that’s just the physical.
As we show up to practice day after day, we witness changes happening in more important places than our bodies. We notice that we’re braver. We notice that when we’re afraid, we are less likely to turn and run. We notice that we’re more accepting of our own failures. We notice that we’re more likely to choose to focus on what we like about ourselves or our practice rather than on what we’d like to change. We notice that we’re more loving and much gentler with ourselves than we ever were before. We notice ourselves extending this same, soft acceptance and powerful, uninhibited love to others. One day, we notice that the way we’re experiencing our lives and our relationships has completely changed. And this transformation is better than the greatest grand finale of any magic show ever.
As we practice day after day, we notice things disappearing. Pain. Weakness. Inflexibility. And this is just what you can see on the outside. Deep within you other magical disappearing acts are happening. Lethargy, laziness and doubt in ourselves are vanishing into thin air. Like the best magic tricks, that which disappears is replaced by something else. In our bodies, yoga leaves us comfortable, strong and flexible. Within, yoga leaves us filled with energy, will power and confidence.
Daily practice leaves us with the ability to read minds and to change the outcome of our days. Seriously. As we spend time observing ourselves as we move and breathe on our yoga mats, we develop a heightened awareness of our tendencies, our habits, our thoughts and our emotions. So heightened is this newfound awareness that we start to get pretty good at managing our reactions. We get better at choosing our responses to challenges and successes rather than getting carried away by waves of emotion. Yes, we may only be able to read one mind (our own), but that’s enough. It’s such a powerful skill, that, with it, we can change our own future – finding peace within chaos, finding compromise in the midst of disagreement, finding a way to love across vast differences.
Like the magic done on stage or television, the magic of yoga requires staggering amounts of practice. Developing the skill to work magic on and off the mat is hard. You must be patient. You must be persistent. The magic of yoga, however, requires one thing that magic tricks do not. For the magic of yoga to work, you must believe in it. You must believe in its possibility (and your own) so thoroughly that you will keep practicing and keep working against all odds. This faith, mixed with all your hard work and practice, will yield transformations in your life that would leave David Copperfield, himself, in awe.
Now let’s get to work. Abracadabra …
“A Cherokee or Ojibwa chief is said to have asked his young braves, ‘Why do you spend your time in brooding? Don’t you know you are being driven by great winds across the sky?’” – Richard Rohr
There are as many maxims for the notion that we are part of a greater whole as there are spiritual traditions. During the years of my most passionate seeking, when I was terrified that I’d miss my calling and, therefore, waste my life, one of my favorite verses from the Bible was from the Old Testament – Jeremiah 29:11. “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Spending a little time with these words reassured me that I was part of something so big that there was no way I could mess it up. Knowing this, it was easier for me to surrender to this time of restless seeking.
As my yoga practice deepened and it was becoming clear that it was part of the path I sought, I dug into yoga philosophy. One of yoga’s ten moral tenets is isvara pranidhana or surrender to God. In yoga’s supremely open way, God is never defined or boxed into a particular religion. Nevertheless, God, and the need for us to surrender to God, is at the heart of the practice. In his book, Astanga Yoga Anusthana, Sharath Jois writes, “The more you think of God, the more you become attached to the divine, providing the inner strength to deal with the uncertainties of life.” To attach to the divine requires open hearts and hands. We must relinquish our grip on our own plans, worries, fears and desires in order to step into our role within the great Creation of which we are a part.
Despite the magnificent capacity of our human minds (or perhaps because of that capacity), we may only be able to sense this greater whole every once in a while. We get very caught up in the illusion (delusion, really) that we are the center of the universe. That said, in the moments when we do feel part of something more than our own small lives, we often find great peace. In these moments, we cease our striving, we release our grip on control and we surrender with utter confidence to a plan we do not fully understand but do fully trust.
Reaching these moments of peaceful surrender is not easy for us. Not at all. In fact, it is profoundly difficult. It is also something that the less-enlightened among us (I’m squarely in this camp) may have to do over and over again for the rest of our lives. To let go and trust like this, requires us to be small, relatively unimportant and most definitely not in the driver’s seat of life. In short, we have to step down from the self-made pedestals that we’ve spent a very long time clambering up upon.
These pedestals take many forms. One is classic success. Perhaps you’ve spent years working for and earning promotion after promotion until you’ve reached the top of your corporate climb. While you may not have to let go of your job, in order to find the peace of surrendering to the greater whole, you must let go of any and all illusions of heightened power or increased self-worth that you feel you have earned from your career. We must stop striving toward some future goal, and, instead refocus fully on the moment. We must ask ourselves, “What is the most good I can cause right now?” and the answer to that selfless, generous question must dictate our next step.
Another “pedestal” that many of us create for ourselves is calm. Perhaps you and your family have a very nice life. Each day you wake up with a smile. You know what needs to be done and when it needs to be done by. Whether you know it or not, your sense of peace is supported by daily and weekly routines that make you feel under control. We must relinquish even our slightest grip on control in order to step into the unknown in which our purpose and future await. We have to be free to say “yes” when opportunity knocks. Saying “Yes!” may mean that the laundry doesn’t get done on Monday, or that our annual trip to the beach may not happen, or that our child doesn’t come home for the summer as we had planned. But unless we say “yes” to the unexpected and the unknown, our lives will be stagnate and unchanging. We will, in essence, remain closed off from the possibilities of playing our role in a plan greater than any we could construct for ourselves.
The most unexpected “pedestal” of all from which many of us must climb down is suffering. Perhaps you’ve struggled and struggled to no avail. You don’t have enough money. You can’t seem to stick to a healthy lifestyle. You still haven’t met someone with whom to share your life. Perhaps you’ve been injured or a loved one has fallen ill. Perhaps you’ve lost your job. These times require precisely the same surrender. We must release the notion that we have any control at all over what life brings our way. More profoundly, we must trust that even our greatest struggles can be formative and filled with grace and growth. When we stop fighting and, instead, immerse ourselves fully in our experience (no matter how scary or painful or terrible it is), we are, in essence saying, “Yes!” At this moment, we open ourselves up to lessons and gifts of life that we could never have imagined for ourselves.
It turns out that we are not much different than those young braves. We, too, need to pause and answer the chief’s question. Why do we make ourselves so very busy brooding on our plans, our wants and all that we think we deserve? Whether our brooding involves resting on our laurels, clinging tightly to structure or struggling against our current reality, what we are doing is stealing ourselves away from God and the plans he has for each and every one of us.