I stand on my yoga mat, feet apart. As I exhale, I press my feet into the floor feeling my connection to the earth. Simultaneously, I feel my breast bone lift toward the sky and the lowest part of my belly tucks up and back toward my spine.
I inhale and reach my arms wide. I feel my collarbones spread apart. I feel the muscles across my chest stretch, expanding with my breath. In this same instant, my sternum lifts even higher and my spine follows along. It feels like the weight of the world has lifted from my shoulders as I reach myself up to my full height.
I exhale and bring my hands to my hips, folding forward. As I lower into this forward bend, I keep my spine as long and as extended as it was a moment before. I feel the muscles on the back of my legs and around my bottom stretch open and I move into each millimeter of newly available space by drawing my head closer to the floor.
For these three breaths – probably ten seconds – of yoga, I’m focused entirely on sensation. I have no goals other than to experience. It doesn’t matter how close my head gets to the floor. It doesn’t matter if my hands feel flub or not. It doesn’t matter if my shirt is riding up.
What matters in these seconds is that my mind, my breath and my body are all doing the same thing. My breath and my movements are completely synchronized. And my awareness is engrossed in how this feels. For these seconds, my experience is all there is. I am purely and simply BEING. This experience is not earth shattering. It is not other-worldly or overly spiritual. I have not slipped into some heavenly realm. Rather, I’m most definitely standing, a little sweaty, right there in the real world on my yoga mat.
But these moments have an immediacy and a concreteness to them that others in my day will not. There is a clarity to this experience that I relish. For a moment, my jumbled, racing thoughts are stilled. Like lake water clearing after a boat has passed, everything is suddenly bright and calm. Beneath the quiet is a sense of gratitude and even joy at being here and now, a vital part of this world. I feel solid. Centered. Connected. I understand in the deepest possible way that this ordinary moment is extraordinary. In fact, they all are.
And then I think, “This is what life is meant to feel like! This is being in the moment! This is it!”
And, with these jubilant thoughts, as a suddenly and softly as a bubble pops, the experience is over.
What to do now? Do I roll up my mat and walk dejectedly out into my day? Do I wallow a little in my disappointment that I let it slip away? That I am still such a baby when it comes to focusing? That I’m still so very far from enlightenment, from finding heaven on earth?
I draw my mind back to my breath. With an inhale, I rise to standing. I feel again the power of my feet, my core and my strong, long spine. With an exhale, I softly drop my chin and notice my upper body relax. And with an inhale, ready and willing to try again, I open my arms wide. As I feel my chest stretch open, a little smile brushes my lips. It feels so good. I draw a little more air in. With my next breath, I fold forward and feel (again) the wonderful synchronization of movement, breath and awareness.
This is practice. My job is to keep showing up. Each time I do, my intention is to settle. To sense that I’m integrally connected to creation around me. To drop my awareness beneath the chatter in my head to something deep within me. To feel again what it can feel like to really live.
Some days, I have a few of these moments. Some days, none. Once or twice in the past 15 years, I’ve spent almost my entire practice in this quiet, clear state. But, over the years I’ve learned that the type of yoga practice I have is almost incidental. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that what my daily practice does is ensure that I will have more of these moments – moments of pure experience, of pure connection, of pure clarity – off my mat and in my life. And that I will notice them when they happen and continue to seek more.
My son is studying in London for the semester. Even a year ago the notion of us being an ocean apart seemed impossible. When he suggested the idea, the mom in me who still vividly remembers cradling my baby boy had a series of thoughts. “You’re not old enough to be that far from home.” And “Do you really think you’re grown-up enough to be so independent?” And “No way. You still need me. Don’t you?”
But I didn’t say these things out loud. In fact, as I looked into his blue eyes and saw the confidence and excitement there, a another voice (thankfully less emotional and more rational) spoke up. And she said, “Yes!” Because this mom in me knows this is a kid who rises to the occasion. She also knows this space is precisely what he needs to continue growing into the man he’s becoming.
When I received the text, “Just so you know, I’m pretty sick,” those two moms in me spoke up again. The one who misses her baby quietly started working logistics on how to get to London. The other one calmly asked for his symptoms and sent him the names of the medicines that have worked for him in the past, as well as a list of the ingredients in these drugs so he could find the British equivalents. She also said a prayer of thanks that we can text for free, and did so off and on throughout the day.
He made it to the pharmacy where he found a pharmacist to help him choose the right medicine. He ordered some take-out food so he didn’t waste away. He let his professors know he was sick. He stayed home to rest. In short, he handled being sick in a foreign country – something that is never easy – just fine.
On the third day, just as I was heaving a sigh of relief that he was going to live (drama … such drama), my husband said, “You know, it’s kind of good that this hard thing happened. It’s just more grist for the “I Can Do It” mill.”
And he’s right. Our son now knows he can take care of himself in sickness and in health. While neither he nor I would have chosen for him to lose a week of his European adventure feeling sick, he successfully handled the challenging situation. And, I suspect, he’s feeling pretty good about that and probably even more confident about his ability to have the semester of his dreams.
At first glance, it might seem smart to avoid hard things in life. It might seem that choosing to do things that you’re good at maximizes your chances for success. But this is actually not that the case. In fact, science shows that challenging ourselves – even to the point of frustration and beyond – is a surefire way for us to keep our minds working at peak capacity. [See Lisa Feldman Barrett’s fascinating explanation of the development of the brain that comes when one regularly chooses to challenge oneself.]
This is something I have learned from years of practicing yoga. On my mat, I’ve discovered that challenges are opportunities to grow – to develop new abilities, to deepen your self-confidence, to stretch yourself past your limits. Don’t get me wrong. The challenges I’ve faced on my yoga mat are never fun, are rarely easy, and are often scary. Injury. Illness. Debilitating fear. Seemingly intractable stiffness. None of these are issues I’d go looking for. But, when they come looking for me, I’ve noticed that my initial reaction is no longer to try to avoid them.
I may still have a little cry or even a temper tantrum. But, surprisingly quickly, I find that it’s gratitude for the chance to learn and grow (mixed with a healthy dose of faith) that gets me moving again in the face of whatever hard thing I’ve been given to figure out. So far I’ve never disappointed myself. There has been a gift hiding within every ache and pain and on the far side of every conquered fear. But the real treasure is that I see myself meeting challenges off my mat with the same attitude.
This is exactly why I think the wiser of the two moms in me was so passionately in favor of my son studying overseas. Any time we can put ourselves in the position to meet a challenges we take another step toward becoming the people we have the potential to be. I suspect after this adventure that my boy is on, that he, like me, will learn to stay on the lookout for grist to feed his “I-Can-Do-It mill.”
Maybe you will too?
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”][Prayer] is not a technique for getting things or a pious exercise that somehow makes God happy, or a requirement for entry into heaven. Prayer is … practicing heaven now.” – Father Richard Rohr[/mk_blockquote]
Whether or not you intend it to be one, yoga is a spiritual practice. It was created to help people like you and me connect with a power greater than themselves in their daily lives. This power goes by many names – “God,” “The Universe,” “Spirit,” “The Divine” – and yoga is very yogic in not limiting this practice to one religion or faith system. Rather yoga is offered as a tool that works within any faith or without a faith at all.
How does it do this? Well, first, a yoga practice is not designed to get you into heaven after you die. It’s meant to improve your experience of your miraculous life – the greatest, most wonderful gift you will ever receive. Yoga centers your spirituality right here and right now. As it does so, it changes everything about the way you are living your life.
Yoga always starts with the basics. It starts with the most accessible part of your life – your body.
Yoga doesn’t stick with the body for long. Even if you swear you only get on your mat because it’s a good workout. (I love this about yoga.)
With enough practice the things we are learning on our mats begin to expand beyond ourselves.
We practice and we practice (on and off the mat) and we begin to trust some seriously life altering ideas.
Living like this gives us glimpse after glimpse of heaven here and now – connection, engagement, participation, gratitude, wonder. Living your yoga is a prayer without end.
Namaste. (Or, the good and valuable in me recognizes and bows to the same in each of you.)
For a high school senior girl, there is nothing quite as important as finding your prom dress. Having witnessed this process firsthand, I was surprised by how complicated it has become.
These days, choosing a dress is more methodical than any research project that most kids have done to date. Hours are spent on-line browsing hundreds of dresses on dozens of websites. Analysis must be done of cut, color and how each style would look on you. There are statistics to manage. You carefully keep track of your classmates’ choices on the Facebook page created not only to reduce the horror of dress duplication, but to make sure you don’t choose the most popular color or a dress that is “too much” or “too little.”
Friendships are tested as each girls texts out screen shots of her favorites to her group and opinions are gathered. Emotions can run high. There can be tears, as in “She chose the dress I wanted!” or “I’ll never find one that pretty.” There can be some cattiness. There can be gossip. (After all, we’re talking about adolescent girls.) But there can also be empathy and kindness and even sheer joy when you think you’ve found “the one.”
Actually standing in the store and choosing “the one” is a gigantic decision for a girl. Trying on gown after gown is a real-life moment that feels lifted out of a Hollywood romantic comedy. You spin in front of mirrors. Women from other dressing rooms “ooh” and “aah.” You’re offered a selection of high heels. Best yet? There’s a smiling someone standing right there to hang up your cast-offs for you.
You can’t get completely caught up in romance of the moment, though. You have to think. You have to inspect. You have to categorize and analyze. You have to really look at yourself. The dresses that don’t look good on you or that you didn’t really like anyway are the easy decisions to make. Harder is the dress you loved as soon as you saw it on-line, but that doesn’t look quite the same on you as it did on the willowy model. Harder still is the style you “hated” in all the pictures but looks like it was made for you when your mom makes you try it on.
The hardest decision of all, however, is the final choice between the two (or, if you’re really having a good day, three) gowns that make your heart beat a little faster. Thinking doesn’t help you now. The work of critiquing, analyzing and inspecting yourself in the mirror is over. Even gathering opinions – from the salespeople, the woman in the next dressing room, your best friend in the dressing room with you, 15 of your closest friends via text – doesn’t help.
You are on your own now. You have to trust something much deeper than data or opinions or well-considered thoughts. You have to stand in each dress and figure out how you feel. For, in the end, choosing a prom dress is about choosing the dress that makes you feel beautiful. The dress that makes you feel like a princess. The dress that makes one of your dreams come true.
This is heart-stuff rather than head-stuff. And for many of us, heart-stuff is uncharted, uncomfortable territory. It’s easier to make choices when we know we’re right. When the math checks out. When there are supporting arguments. When there are experts to rely on. We’ve been trained all of our lives to make decisions like this. In fact, many of have been trained that heart-stuff is unreliable, that feelings are less valuable than thoughts, that desires and dreams are for … well … for (scoff) dreamers.
A yoga practice teaches us the benefits of both head-stuff and heart-stuff. Our teachers provide the head-stuff. Our teachers can show us technique. They can recommend books. They can suggest videos. They can listen to us and repeat back what they hear. They can answer questions. They can guide us, but only so far.
For our practice to really take off, we assimilate all that we have learned and then we add to it from our own experience. We have to begin to lead the way, relying on the way we feel, what we yearn for and whether or not we sense something is right or wrong. We’re on our own as we work with this heart-stuff. On our mats the heart-stuff we work with can be fears and frustrations, failures and success or gains and losses. We set goals based on our desires. We have to learn when to push ourselves and when to coddle ourselves a little bit.
Our yoga practice teaches us to balance our reliance on head-stuff. With practice, we learn not only to connect with, but to trust, heart-stuff as much as anything else that we’ve learned.
Many of life’s biggest decisions ask us to do just this. Choosing a spouse. Choosing a house. Choosing a new job. In each of these choices head-stuff absolutely plays a critical role. But that alone is not enough. There is an emotional component to these choices that can derail us if we don’t know how to tune into our heart. Thankfully, we can practice. Whether on a yoga mat or while choosing a prom dress (or whatever the male equivalent of that is).