In the years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve witnessed the curative powers of yoga many times. Students with allergies, asthma, sciatica, mild scoliosis, chronic low back pain, shoulder injuries, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, fallen arches, plantar fasciitis have come to me with wide eyes and wonder in their voices to share their stories of healing. “Yoga cured me.” “Yoga fixed me.” “If it wasn’t for yoga, I don’t know what I would have done.”
They haven’t done anything different than you do. They come to class to move and breathe once or twice a week. Because they are hurting, perhaps they pay a bit more attention to their alignment. Perhaps they are more patient, resisting the urge to push too far or try too hard. But, like you, they are persistent. They show up and they are hopeful about the transformation that yoga promises.
I watch their bodies change week to week and month to month. I am thrilled when they tell me that they feel better. That their nagging aches and pains have faded away. That they are moving through life with more strength and flexibility than they’d ever dreamed was possible. But as miraculous as these “cures” are, there is something more wonderful going on that I cannot see. Yoga is not just transforming injury and ailment into wellness. Yoga is creating patterns and behaviors inside and out that prevent future injury, ailments and even illness.
At least 1300 years before Ben Franklin uttered his famous line about an ounce of prevention, a sage in India named Patanjali compiled The Yoga Sutras from even older wisdom sources. In sutra 11.16 he wrote:
This sutra makes me wonder (not for the first time) if Franklin was somehow also a yogi. While it’s fun to imagine this pillar of American heritage upside down in a headstand, it’s more meaningful to focus on the fact that this pearl of wisdom is a truth so powerful that sages for millennia have shared it with their students.
Franklin’s proverb is often said to mean that it is easier to stop something from happening than it is to fix the damage after it has happened. The same is true on our yoga mats. While yoga can cure, it is even better at helping us to stay well – in other words, to stop injury and illness from happening.
How it does this is open to debate. Daily movement is critically important to our wellbeing. So is getting our heart rate up and breaking a sweat. Increasing range of motion in our spine and joints makes us more comfortable in our bodies. Combined with the improved balance we earn on our mats, this mobility keeps us safer as we move through our lives. Yoga’s breathing strengthens and expands our lung capacity which gives us more endurance. It also slows our natural rate of breath which is very good for our peace of mind and focus.
I could go on and on, but I’ll stop with this: several of my students’ health insurance plans will reimburse them for their yoga classes because they are considered preventative care. (After all, who could ever doubt the wisdom of a health insurance company?)
I have no doubt that Patanjali and Franklin probably hoped we would take their pearls of wisdom a little further than our bodies. As so often occurs with yoga, the lessons we learn on our mats are just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, we learn to be aware of ourselves as we practice. But it’s more than that. We learn how to pay attention to our habits – we change the ones that need changing, we refine the ones that are beneficial. We learn to be mindful of even movements we’ve made a thousand times. We learn to take a deep breath when something is hard or scares us. We learn that holding our breath is a recipe for disaster. We learn that being mindful rather than on autopilot makes us better at whatever it is that we’re doing. We learn that what we think about ourselves matters – it can either empower us or limit us. We learn that some fears when faced shrink to nothing. We learn that other fears keep us safe.
All of these lessons translate powerfully into lives lived better. The “pain yet to come” that we are avoiding is so much more than a pulled muscle or sore back. Because we are living more mindfully, more thoughtfully and with more intention, we are preventing the pain of unnecessary conflict, the pinched feeling of not being true to ourselves and the suffering that comes from not stretching and growing into the people we hope to be.
If this is true (and I believe with all my heart that it is), an ounce of yoga may indeed be worth a pound of cure later on.
My son is studying acting in college. After more than a year of having people respond to this bit of news by quoting me the success rates for actors in our country or reciting the US News and World Report list of majors that lead to the highest (and lowest) paid careers, I find myself automatically attaching caveats and disclaimers. I’ll shrug my shoulders and say, “Who knows where it will lead?” or give a knowing smile and say, “I know, I know. But it’s what he loves.”
And, in essence, while these responses are designed in part to defuse a conversation I don’t really feel like having, they are also truths that are at the very core of my understanding of my job as a parent. I trust that if my son follows his heart and digs deep into what he loves, life will lead him on an exciting and fulfilling journey beyond any that I (or he) could plan for himself. To use acting as a metaphor, there’s just no part of me that feels the need to script or direct his life for him. I view my role as a passionate member of his audience. One who wouldn’t miss a single performance, who will applaud wildly for his successes and be there to support him no matter what.
It hasn’t always been this way for me – in relationship to my son or to myself. I have tended to be a hold-on-er rather than a let-go-er. A planner rather than someone comfortable with seeing what happens.
In fact, if I’d followed my own heart in college, I would have been an art history major. But people asked me what I’d do. Not having a great answer, I focused elsewhere. Learning about third world development (my actual major) simply wasn’t as natural a fit for me as my art classes. I particularly loved the secrets tucked into so many masterpieces by the artists. There was an intimacy to figuring out that the shape of a space between two figures could symbolize the Holy Grail, that the interplay of light and shadow could indicate life and death or good and evil, or that you could tell who the people were by the color of their robes.
Rembrandt, the great Dutch master, was one of my favorite painters to study. His “Return of the Prodigal Son” contains precisely the kind of secret that has always intrigued and thrilled me. Rembrandt gave the father two different hands. You may not notice this at first glance, but when you spend time really looking at the painting, it leaps out at you. One of his hands is feminine and one is quite masculine. In school, I decided this detail represented both parents welcoming their lost son home – the father and the mother. In fact, I wrote a decent paper on the fullness of this particular welcome. The gentle, protective hand of the mother and the supportive, strong hand of the father that gave the boy the freedom to leave in the first place.
Last week I ran across a commentary on this painting by Henri Nouwen, in his book Discernment. He was taught that the father’s hands in Rembrandt’s painting depict the hands of unconditional love. “One says, ‘I’ve got you and I hold you safe because I love you and I’ll never be apart from you. Don’t be afraid.’ The other says, ‘Go, my child, find your way, make mistakes, learn, suffer, grow, and become whom you need to be. Don’t be afraid. You are free and I am always near.’”
Reading these words, I realized what I never could have understood as a twenty-something student. Then I viewed the painting from the perspective of the returning son. I related intimately to the painting as a daughter. Halfway through college, the thought of heading out on my own seemed terrifying. I yearned for the welcoming embrace of home, of my parents. Two short years later, I would need the other hand, the hand that would encourage me to spread my winds and fly. Today, I see the painting from the perspective of the father. His hands are mine now – both the feminine one and the masculine one. I see the gentleness, the steadfastness and the constancy of my love for each of my children. I also see the power and the strength asked of me to give them the freedom to walk their paths in life.
These two types of love balance each other. One without the other could cause damage – smothering or seeming aloof. Not only do we all seek both of these types of love in life, we all must also learn to give both. One “hand” will probably feel more natural to each of us. Though we may be more inclined to shelter, to protect, and to hold close, we still need to learn to stand back, allowing our beloved to stretch their wings and even to fly away.
Yoga teaches us over and over again that natural proclivities can be worked with. We can stretch and change ourselves inside and out. With practice, we can learn to love with “both hands.” On days when I’m tired or worried or anxious, I may need to go easy, to retreat, and to be reminded that I am perfectly OK no matter my successes or failures. But if this were the only kind of self-love I practiced, I’d never learn and grow. On other days, I need a stiffer kind of love. I need to be reminded that failure is often a necessary stepping stone to eventual success. These days call for a metaphorical push from the nest. I need the freedom and the encouragement to try and try (and try) again.
Whatever the day holds for you, whatever your situation – whether you’re a teacher, a friend, a parent, a colleague or a boss – visualize Rembrandt’s painting. Watch yourself so you don’t mindlessly default to your natural tendencies. Instead, try to find the appropriate balance of holding close and letting go. In other words, pray to hold the people in your life with the two mismatched hands of unconditional love.
When was the last time you messed up? Did you miss a meeting? Lose your friend’s beloved book? Forget to hire a babysitter for that long-awaited date with your husband? Fail to show up to drive your son’s team to practice?
Who was more upset by your mistake? The colleagues you accidentally stood up? Your friend? Your husband? Or your son’s coach?
Or was it you?
I suspect it was you.
We are so terribly hard on ourselves. We hold ourselves to standards to which we’d never hold others. And we are mean as snakes to ourselves when we mess up.
While your colleagues probably laughed at your ditzy-ness and asked when you could reschedule, you were probably berating yourself. I know your friend was probably sad to lose her cherished book, but I bet she received your heartfelt apology and replacement book with a hug rather than the wrath you felt for yourself. Sure, your husband was disappointed that your long-standing plans fell through, but he probably got over it and into the unexpected family game night more quickly than you did. And your son’s coach? I am confident the fact that his team was 15 minutes late upset him for about 15 minutes while you wallowed in your embarrassment and frustration with yourself for days.
In short, people are almost always kinder to us than we are to ourselves. My finger is not pointed solely at you. Lord knows, it’s true for me. In fact, this is true for so many of us that you could say it is part of the human condition. Father Richard Rohr, a globally recognized teacher and author, writes, “We all have to admit that our secret inner attitudes are often cruel, attacking, judgmental and harsh.” Henri Nouwen, known as one of the great spiritual masters of our time, in his book Discernment, identifies self-rejection as “the greatest enemy of a spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us God’s beloved.” He goes on to wonder “if the greatest temptation is self-rejection … the fear of never being enough or not being lovable.”
It is precisely this fear of never being enough or not measuring up that creates the inner judgment, harshness and cruelty that dictates our attitudes to ourselves.
What do we do about this? How do we change? As is so often the case, change like this starts with self-awareness. We have to start to really hear our inner dialogue rather than simply letting it wash over us. This can be challenging as we may have become so accustomed to the negative patter that we don’t even recognize it for the venom that it is.
My yoga practice helps me a great deal to notice when I’m being harsh with myself. In the quiet on my mat, the only things to listen to are the sound of my breath and the voice in my head. I’ve learned that even in the peace and quiet of my practice, I’m perfectly capable of accepting cold, judging, at times mean thoughts about myself without flinching. I allow myself to say thing to myself that I would never (never!) say to someone else. To make matters worse, I do it regularly and in a place I’ve designated to heal and nurture my spirit.
With practice (more of it than I care to admit), I’m learning to be aware of the tenor of my inner dialogue. I am learning to change the language of my thoughts. I am learning to forgive myself for not being perfect. Better yet, I am learning to accept myself as I am right now. After all, yoga doesn’t care if I mess up a few postures or simply can’t learn to stand on my head. A practice filled with physical “failures” can be a deeply rewarding, centering time that leaves me energized and ready to take on the rest of my day. In the face of those great gifts, it’s suddenly easy (or at least easier) to ask that cold, hard voice in my head, “Who are you to judge my inabilities as failures when, clearly, it was enough? When, clearly I was enough?”
You – imperfections and all – are enough. So am I. We should practice the kindness we show to others – and receive from others – with ourselves. By short-circuiting our destructive inner attitudes, we probably will not become perfect. We probably will still mess up. But we will become more loving, patient, accepting people, which is all the world really needs us to be, right?
In the early days of our marriage, we slipped into a dangerous pattern. I’m not sure there is any one glaring example that illustrates it. Suffice it to say that, after episode number 853, I was sulking and my husband was in the proverbial doghouse. While I can’t remember what exactly got us there, after 23 years I can still remember my husband’s response. Let’s just say, he’s never had to repeat himself. “Love, I’m good at many things, but I am a terrible psychic. I simply cannot read your mind. You’re gonna have to ask.”
I am so glad that he had the guts to say this. To this day, I firmly believe this was a pivotal moment in our marriage that helped make possible all of the subsequent years of (relatively) peaceful togetherness. Somehow, him asking me to ask for what I need blew away the fog of wishful, wistful notions of a “Hollywood” perfect relationship. The romantic ideal that “if he really loves me, he’ll know what I need,” popped with no more fanfare than a bubble.
While I don’t claim to be a perfect communicator, thanks to his words, I have gotten pretty good at asking for what I want from my husband. But the last 10 days have shown me that I still need practice when it’s someone else I need something from.
It started, as it so often does, on my mat. I’ve been dealing with a flare up of TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction). Yes, when I’m sound asleep, I’m a tooth grinder and jaw clencher. All of the dental work that I’ve had done over the last couple of months is having some significant ripple effects in my jaw. In addition to lost sleep, I am experiencing some tightness, weakness and soreness in my upper body. After a particularly bad night, my yoga practice can leave me feeling more tired than restored.
Earlier this week, I could tell as I began to move that it was going to be one of those days. My inner drill sergeant (though she has her uses, I really don’t like her) kicked into gear and I slogged through the next several postures like I was on a march to battle. And then my knees hit the floor. As I sank into child’s pose, a little voice within said, “I need to take it easy today. Could we just do that? Please?” A tiny part of me was actually cringing at how I expected my drill sergeant to reply. But when she did, her voice had changed. It was as if my whole being heard my request. “Easy sounds good,” I thought. And easy felt good.
But there something greater going on here than just acquiescing to a tired day. It turns out that asking for what I needed from myself was a lot less natural than it is when I’m talking to my husband. It was actually kind of hard. But what wasn’t hard or unnatural was giving myself what I’d had the courage to ask for. That felt just as natural (albeit a little surprising) as it feels to give someone else what they ask for from me. Hmmm.
That same exact day, I found myself stewing in the shower after my practice. I’d called the doctor the day before to make an appointment, only to be told that the next available time when she could see me was more than a month away. I was still annoyed at having to wait so long. As I stood there with the hot water running down my back (site of many an epiphany), I realized that I hadn’t actually asked for what I wanted. Yes, I ‘d asked for an appointment. But I had not asked for what I really needed – a timely appointment.
Suddenly my experience of asking for what I needed on my mat felt serendipitous. If my inner drill sergeant (who is not always particularly nice) responded so kindly to an honest expression of need, it seemed likely the woman who answered the phone could do the same. It also seemed silly for me to think that the receptionist at my doctor was any more psychically talented than my husband. I decided to try asking.
I called back, explained my situation and requested that the receptionist speak with the doctor to ask if she would be willing to squeeze me in earlier. You guessed it. The phone rang less than 10 minutes later. The answer was yes.
My husband’s words of wisdom bear repeating – “My love, no one can read your mind. You’re gonna have to ask.” I promise, I’ve never been sorry that I did. And neither will you.