It wasn’t until my fourth and final walk on the beach over this past holiday weekend that I heard it. It sounded like tiny windchimes each time a wave rolled in. We were in Florida on the Gulf of Mexico where there are a variety and quantity of seashells like nowhere else I’ve ever been. When I paused to listen again, I realized that the tinkling I was hearing was the sound of thousands of shells gently being dropped on the beach by each wave. I stood there smiling in the warm sun enjoying yet another detail of this stretch of beach that I’ve come to know so well and love so dearly.
It’s always special when you notice something new about someone or something that you think you know completely. I’ve spent hours slowly combing that beach for sand dollars and conchs and gingham clams and a whole palette of colorful scallops. I know which drifts of shells (honestly, some of them are like snow drifts) contain treasure and which just broken bits and pieces. I’ve figured out where the sand dollars and shark teeth hide. And I’ve learned the art of un-focusing my eyes “just so” so I can better spot a tiny whelk amid a crowd of scallops.
In other words, I thought I knew this beach inside and out. Discovering something new about it didn’t just make me love it even more – it made me want to explore it further and to get to know it better.
I’ve had the same experience and reaction to my yoga practice. While I practice one of the same two series of postures each day, I’ve never grown bored. If you had told me sixteen years ago that this would be the case, I’m not sure I would have had enough experience to believe you. In the beginning, I thought it was possible to fully understand these postures. I though it was possible to achieve perfection in them. I thought, I suppose, that they were finite.
Yet despite sixteen years of practice, I am still learning details and nuances in each of these postures. I am learning about alignment, about how to make tiny shifts and changes in which muscles I am contracting or releasing, about technique and about intention. I am learning about effort – what is too much and what is too little. I am learning from successes and failures. I am learning from long stretches of health and (mostly shorter) journeys through injuries and illness.
In short, I am never bored. I am always learning. And each time I learn something new my craving and yearning to keep on exploring and learning about this practice that I love is intensified.
What would our relationships – with dear friends, siblings, spouses and parents – be like if we approached them with this same keen passion to know more? What if we allowed the people in our life to surprise us in this way? What about our jobs or our studies or our hobbies? What about ourselves? What if we were able to stay fascinated and curious about who we are, how we think, what we believe and what we love?
Everything in life has the capacity to engage us in this way. When we strip away the notion that there is a finite amount that we can learn about anything, our whole outlook shifts. We become perpetual students – always learning and always growing. It’s as if, as I have learned to soften my focus while walking the beach so I am more likely to glimpse the special shells hiding in the piles of “normal” or “expected” shells, we are softening out focus as we gaze upon the world around us and the people who fill it.
When we choose to see this way, we are better able to recognize and to receive the often surprising gifts and insights being offered to us.
“As I began to love myself, my relationship with everyone changed.”
Yoga is a contemplative practice. Like meditation, many prayer practices, journaling, Tai Chi and many, many others, yoga gives us the chance to practice concentrating and focusing, with the higher goal of developing an understanding of ourselves. In addition to creating deeper self-knowledge, contemplative practices awaken our spiritual side. For some this serves to deepen an existing faith. For others, a spiritual awakening creates a longing to live more ethically or empathetically with the world around us.
Even if we begin to practice yoga for the physical gifts – strength, flexibility, or endurance – the practice quietly draws us past this surface level. As we move and breathe on our yoga mats, we shift into “observer” mode. In the beginning, we are observing things like the alignment of our bodies or our level of fatigue. Before long, however, we’re observing more subtle things. We begin to notice physical growth and change in ourselves. We begin to notice our reactions – to success or to challenge or to the glimpse we just caught of a super bendy classmate.
Once we start to notice our reactions, we begin to realize we have choices not only in physical actions such as how we move our body, but in how we respond to situations. As this happens, our glimpse of that flexible classmate may elicit a deep breath rather than a surge of envy. In time, that deep breath will be coupled with a deliberate effort to refocus on ourselves.
This shift in focus may simply draw our awareness back to the physical experience we’re having in that moment. But, with practice, these moments of mindfully refocusing will shift into powerful moments of affirmation. We may feel pleased about the moment we’re having – a sense of gentle pride that we can do something we once could not, or the nurturing understanding that we’re doing something to take care of ourselves or a gentle pat on the back for stretching ourselves to do something difficult.
Like our experience and abilities on our mat, these moments of affirmation begin to accumulate. Over time, yoga leaves us with a (sometimes very new) appreciation for ourselves. With more time, this appreciation deepens into love.
Loving ourselves is very foreign for many of us. Something in our culture makes it much easier to beat ourselves up than to love ourselves. We hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. We compare ourselves not just to the “real people” we know and love, but to the fictitious images of perfection that we see in advertisements, magazines, movies and even in our own imaginations. We chastise ourselves for mistakes made. We drop our heads in shame when we don’t fulfill our own ridiculous expectations.
We rarely, if ever, offer ourselves gentle generosity – forgiveness, understanding, the chance to make amends or simply to try again.
On our mats, these gentle gestures of generosity are easier to try. After all, the world will not end if you cannot touch your toes. “Good Lord! It’s only yoga,” says one my favorite teachers, David Swenson, with a laugh and a smile.
This practice with gentle generosity with yourself piles up like all practice does. Before we know it, we are more forgiving, more understanding, more willing to say “Whoops!” and try again off our mats. In a nutshell, we are more willing to treat ourselves with love. In a powerful proof of the adage, “Fake it until you make it,” the more we treat ourselves as if we love ourselves, the more we actually begin to love ourselves. It’s a little miraculous, actually.
More miraculous, however, is that this new relationship with ourselves sets the tenor for every single relationship we have in life. Because we have always been stingiest with self-love, learning to love on ourselves opens flood gates of love out into the world. When someone messes up, it begins to feel quite natural to say, “No problem, let’s try again.” When someone has a different approach than ours, we might notice feeling curious rather than defensive. When someone disagrees with us, we might find ourselves looking for ways to connect rather than ways to convert them to our beliefs. When someone hurts us, we might pause to attempt to see past the pain we’re feeling to wonder at what pain they must be in to hurt us so.
It is a wonderful cyclical joy that when we embrace a contemplative practice such as yoga and begin to live more gently and more generously in the world, the world around us returns the favor. Perhaps love really does make the world go ‘round.
But so does 5+4
The way you do things is not always the only way to do them.”
Out of the clear blue, I got sick. One day I was hopping around on my yoga mat and the next day, as I began to move, I thought, “holy crud something is terribly wrong with me.” And it was. I had a blood clot that required two four-day stays in the hospital over the course of two weeks. While I am sure I will be sifting through the mental and psychological fall-out of such a sudden and scary ailment for a long while, now that I’m home and easing back into my regularly scheduled life, I realize that, every step of my illness was teaching me the same lesson.
“The way you do things is not always the only way to do them.”
The moment it became clear that I would not be going home from the emergency room, I had to start the process of letting go of control of anything that did not pertain to my body. What would my daughter have for breakfast the next morning? How would the dogs get exercise? What should my husband do about the laundry? Was there enough milk in the fridge? These all became issues for someone else to handle. And I was able to resist the impulse to create detailed lists of instructions to ensure that it was all done “my way.” In fact, I was so totally preoccupied with what was happening in my body, the thought that “my way” is really the “best way” didn’t even cross my mind. (And usually that thought crosses my mind kind of a lot.)
You know what? Dog walkers were hired. Groceries showed up. Needed clothes were washed. Those that weren’t needed stayed in the hampers. Breakfasts and lunches were made, and when they were forgotten, they were purchased. Not only was everything fine, but I was literally awash in gratitude that any of it had been done at all.
The care I received in the hospital reiterated this lesson. I had to have the same intense “clot busting” procedure twice. As I headed in for round two, I thought I knew what to expect. Surprise! It turns out that there is more than one way to do the same medical procedure. Each nurse that cared for me had a different way of taking blood, of giving medicine and of checking vitals. Each doctor approached the mystery of my clot from his or her own angle. It was fascinating for me to see that while excellent medical care was immediately recognizable, it rarely looked the same from one professional to the next. There was clearly more than one way to do this, too, and all of them left me feeling the same way – profoundly grateful.
By day two in a hospital bed I was getting twitchy. (Honestly, I felt like I was going to crawl out of my skin.) The physical movement of my practice that I love and crave had been taken away from me by my illness. Worse, however, I was spending way too much time and energy in the future (worrying) and in the past (replaying warning signs and decisions). While I expected to feel unsettled by the recent turn of events, the intensity of how out of sorts I was feeling surprised me.
I whined to my husband, “I wish I could practice …” to which he replied, “So practice.” My knee-jerk reaction was to cry, “I can’t!” And truly I couldn’t (and still can’t) do many of the movements that comprise the practice I’ve done daily for years. Lucky for me, the yoga teacher within spoke up. “Sure you can. You can breathe. You can even make tiny movements. You can practice.”
So I did. And so I have done every day since. In the always hectic hospital, my practice was mindful breathing and two to three minutes of meditation. The first few days I was home, it was child’s pose, some forward folds and five minutes of meditation. A week later, I am practicing postures that do not require upper body weight bearing or full extension of my shoulder for almost an hour and sitting in meditation for fifteen minutes.
While my practice doesn’t look anything like it has for years (in other words like “my way”) it is providing me with the same gifts. My practice of movement synchronized with breath helps me to center myself. It helps energize me. It smooths the rough edges of my emotions and slows my skittering thoughts. It helps me to stay in the moment. It helps me to pray. This “other” way of practicing is also providing a gift that feels brand new and critically important – it is healing me. In fact, at my check-up today, my doctor actually said, “Whatever you’ve been doing for the last week, keep doing it.” It is bringing my body back into balance, it is slowly but surely helping to reduce the swelling in my arm and it has helped to soften my rigid, sore, over-taxed vein.
I find myself once again overwhelmed by gratitude that there is more than one way to do everything. Even though my heart pines for the days when “6+3=9” on my mat and in my body, I am perfectly content to let go and embrace my current “so does 5+4” reality. In fact, I am so grateful that I feel no need to fight for control or struggle back to the “way things were.” I’m going to take this one step (and one breath) at a time and see where it takes me. I suspect it might be a brand new, open-minded reality where “7+2” or even “8+1” could also be the answer.