“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is now.” – Chinese Proverb
The other day when I had slipped briefly down the rabbit hole of “shoulda woulda coulda,” a friend shared the above saying with me. I had never heard it before, so it stopped me in my mental tracks. In an instant it replaced my feelings of frustration and wistfulness caused by a plague of useless what-ifs with a much-needed element of optimism.
You have some unplanted 20-year-old trees in your life, too, right?
My own “giant Sequoia” is the unpurchased Tribeca apartment we decided was way too expensive for “what it was.” That 750 square feet in a prime lower Manhattan neighborhood could have changed the course of our real estate journey. It quadrupled (no, I’m not exaggerating) in value in the two years that we rented it.
Instead we waited and cautiously made our first home purchase in the safer and more practical Boston suburbs. Our adorable, tiny cottage was perfect for our new family. Perfect, that is, until we had to resell it and discovered that the “park” across the street was going to be developed as multi-family rentals. We were lucky to squeak out of Massachusetts with our original investment intact.
Ah well. If we’d had a million dollars to buy our current home, we may not have wound up in our “quirky,” 100-year-old fixer-upper. Yet, our financially questionable and apparently ill-fated real estate delay has yielded at least one profound gift. Had we had not already owned a garage that was converted into what is now my yoga studio, I may never have had the guts to start this little business that is my passion. While we may not have a magnificent, awe-inspiring towering Sequoia of a home, we love it. It has been a wonderful place to nurture and watch both our family and my professional self grow up.
Another “tree” I sometimes mourn as planted too late is my yoga practice. I would be lying if I told you I never wondered what my practice would be like if I’d first unrolled a mat at a more “appropriate” age. You know, if I hadn’t waited until I was 35, but had started practicing I was a young, strong and somewhat bendy 20- or even 25-year-old like my younger students.
As nice as it sounds to have started practicing before I even knew there was a clock to race, it’s also silly. First of all, when I was 20, I was much more concerned about my social life than my “inner life.” Second, if I’m brutally honest, I was never even a little bit bendy so youth wouldn’t have helped on that front. Finally, if I’d already tried yoga “in my younger years,” I wonder if I would have sought it out again when I really needed something to help me navigate through a period of darkness back into the light. I suspect my 35-year-old, fairly lost self needed something brand new to shock my system and wake me up again.
A moment of reflection leads me to conclude that, while not wiser in the traditional sense, in both of these cases the second best time to plant was probably the more fruitful of the two choices. And if I’m wrong, I’ll never know, will I?
After all, it’s impossible to look back at the various forks in your road and know where that other path would have taken you. In fact some forks may not have felt like forks at all. For example, unlike the apartment I definitely chose not to buy, there was never a moment when I decided NOT to start practicing yoga. Yoga never crossed my mind as an alternative when my new husband offered to teach me how to roller blade all over lower Manhattan. (For the record, that particularly “tree” never made it past the sapling stage.)
Which is all to say, whatever you’re thinking about, whatever you’ve noticed, whatever is calling to your heart, you only have this moment. Plant the tree! You can plant it hopefully and optimistically because little trees grow. You might only get a sapling from some of your seeds, but I don’t regret any of the hours I spent skating (poorly) with my husband. Some of your new seeds, however, will become tall, strong, beautiful features in the landscape of your life for decades to come.
But these future trees will remain as make believe as the towering “shoulda-woulda-coulda” Sequoias of your past if you don’t plant them.
“Transformation is not a future event. It is a present activity.” – Jillian Michaels
My very first yoga teacher taught me that yoga is a practice of transformation. I understood her to mean that yoga would transform my three-times postpartum body.
With time, yoga did this. I became happier with and more accepting of my body. Indeed, I found a peace with my body that I had never before experienced.
As I began to read book after book about yoga in an effort to understand this practice that had so captivated me, I began to understand that yoga would transform my behavior. As a mostly frazzled, almost all the time stressed and sometimes quite frustrated ex-career girl and current full-time mom of three under five, this was a big offer. You see, I had ceased to recognize myself in the chaos of my days and the tulmult of my reactions to that constant disorder. I very much yearned for my actions to better match the person I knew I could be.
With time, yoga did just this. I became much less reactive and much more mindful in (most of) my responses to life. Slowly but surely, I began to feel more like the woman I hoped to be rather than the unpleasant stranger I had become.
As I continued to practice, I found myself drawn deeper into my faith. I found myself praying. I found myself sensing God all around me. I thought I heard God calling me. I felt profoundly cared for and deeply special – almost “chosen” – as I was led down the path of making yoga and spirituality my life’s work. I studied and I trained. I learned and I grew.
Yoga continued to transform me – now at a spiritual level – into a person willing to make my faith the cornerstone of my life and my work.
As I continued to practice and to teach, meeting people I never would have met if I had not made yoga my work, I found myself seeing the world from a gentle, new perspective where we are all part of a created whole. I realized over and over again that the love and interest that God had in little-old-me was a grace given to all. Yes, I was specially loved and cared for. But I did not feel possessive of that love. In fact, every time I witnessed that same special love and care flowing to someone else (which was every single time I worked with a student), my awe and faith grew deeper.
I was privileged to watch yoga transform others, and in doing so, yoga transformed my faith.
Nearly twenty years ago when my first teacher taught me that yoga is a practice of transformation I listened. I believed. And I hoped. I even glimpsed aspects of how right she was. But without practice – an awful lot of it – there was no way to know how complete that transformation would be. At the time, knowing might have scared me off. Now, though, I am impossibly excited to see how this transformation will continue to unfold.
And I wish the same adventure for each of you … so I say to you, “Yoga is practice of transformation. Are you ready? Let’s go.”
“Take the first step in faith. You don’t need to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was born and raised as a planner. As such, I took planning for anything and everything very, very seriously. Moving. Scheduling the weekend. Preparing for a test. Throwing a party. Packing for vacation. I was really, really good at planning. So good that I was actually sort of famous for my planning skills. More than once I was offered jobs with the word “planner” in the title.
If you’d read the above MLK quote to this younger version of me, I would have snickered. In my mind then, it would be downright foolish to take a step before you’d scoped out the whole staircase. I can hear myself arguing with you. “You wouldn’t hike the Appalachian Trail without a clear understanding of the terrain and the weather forecast, would you? You’re telling me you’d drive to New Hampshire without a route in mind?”
While I still make some of the best lists you will ever see when planning a party or packing for a trip, simple time on the planet (aka age), life experience, a little exhaustion and a whole lot of yoga have combined to change me rather dramatically. At this point, not only would I not laugh at Dr. King’s pearl of wisdom, I firmly and wholeheartedly embrace it.
No matter what challenge you’re facing or struggle you’re having or growth spurt you’re in, you absolutely do not need to see the whole staircase in order to take the first step. In fact, seeing the whole staircase can be a bit of a deterrent at times. If you have a lot in common with Amy-of-old, hear me out.
When my husband started practicing Aikido, the lure of eventually earning a black belt drew him to the dojo morning after morning. Watching advanced practitioners train inspired him. That said, if he’d known the full scope of his journey – the wicked bruises, the classes where he’d be asked to hold one position for nearly an hour, the weeks sitting on the sidelines watching others while an injury healed, the anxiety of belt tests – I’m not sure he would have taken the first step. If my husband had been able to see the full staircase, it is likely he would have missed out on one of the most rewarding and transformative things he has ever done.
I could say the same of my yoga practice. I have a hard time believing that I would have been inspired to hear that sixteen (16!) years later I would still be working on some of the postures my teacher showed me during my first class. I think (no, I know) that a journey of that length would have looked way too daunting for me to embark upon. I also know for a fact that it was almost impossibly difficult for me to commit to attending class once a week. That hour and a half a week was truly all the time I thought I had to spare. If you’d told me then that you really need to practice more often than that (for some of us, a lot more often than that), I never would have purchased my second 10-class card. It was my very cluelessness about the journey that lay ahead that allowed me to take the first step (and the second, and the third, and, well, probably the thousandth as well).
A detailed view of “the full staircase” can shut down happy choices such as getting a puppy, training for a marathon, decorating your living room, or taking a fantastic new job that requires you to relocate. For instance, knowing everything involved in raising and cohabitating with adolescents, would definitely make the decision to start a family more difficult to make. Speaking personally, my idealized, probably Hallmark-inspired image of a happy family, gave me the courage to set off on that particular tremendous journey.
Life is filled with pivotal moments like these. Moments that could render a planner like I once was paralyzed. Moments that are the start of something so big and so wonderful that no planner in the world could create lists and schedules and flowcharts to map their course. Moments that we risk missing entirely without the courage to take things “one step at a time.” But courage is not all we need.
Taking that first step, as Dr. King points out, requires a leap of faith. Faith in what? Practically, we must have faith that one step is plenty for right now. Faith that the step which is presenting itself (the step that you can see and that feels right in this moment) is probably exactly the right one to take. Faith that you can trust this one step even though you cannot sense the next or the next or the next steps. And, finally, faith that you are braver and more resilient than your desire to have control.
Plans absolutely have their place. For instance, a packing list for a vacation, a menu and a guest list for a party or even a route to New Hampshire all help maximize the fun of the journey ahead. But there is only so far a plan can take you. Sometimes (and these are often the very best times of all) what takes you furthest is simply taking that first step.
“There is a hard truth to be told: before spring becomes beautiful, it is plug ugly, nothing but mud and muck. I have walked in the early spring through fields that will suck your boots off, a world so wet and woeful it makes you yearn for the return of ice. But in that muddy mess, the conditions for rebirth are being created.” – Parker Palmer
I used to think of spring as those rare gift, blue sky days, when you are brushed by a breeze as you stop, surprised, by the new growth all around you. And that is certainly part of spring. Perhaps the best part of spring. Certainly the sweetest part of spring.
But as the mom of two young dogs, spring has come to mean something else entirely. Mud. Mud, mud and more mud. It means eight black and sticky paws each time I let the dogs back inside. It means two nearly black dogs (that started out white, by the way) each time we go for a romp in the woods. The smell of wet – wet dog, wet socks, wet sneakers – is relentless. While this is not the best part of spring, without it, there could be none of the beauty to come – no growth, no flowering, no rebirth.
Though I know deep down inside that the mud and muck are part of the process, knowing doesn’t help me to embrace it. My stomach clenches each time the dogs glimpse a bird out the window and go dashing for the door. Though I know I would benefit from the fresh, clean, almost-warm air and the freedom from these four walls, I find myself thinking twice (actually, I think and re-think a dozen times) before taking the dogs to the woods. When I don’t (and I often don’t), I am as grumpy as the dogs are antsy from being trapped inside.
Beauty, the muddy messiness of early spring teaches me, doesn’t always start out beautifully. And, upon reflection, this is widely true. Think about caterpillars, pollywogs and even brand new, wrinkly, red, squished human babies. Joyful beginnings such as spring don’t always start out so joyfully. Think about the stressful, overwhelming, cluelessness of your first days in a new job – especially a new job you thought was the perfect next step. Or the sleepless nights and days filled with relentless demands and the unbelievable messy messes of life with a newborn or even a puppy.
When we’re in the mud, we simply have to remind ourselves that within the mucky mess of “now,” the conditions for rebirth are being created. We have to put on our muddy sneakers (metaphorical or not), and squish and squash along with faith that the journey – albeit currently sloppy and unpleasant – is worthwhile. As “plug ugly” as things are right now, each step you take requires hope that conditions will improve.
Because I am feeling plagued by actual mud these days, I didn’t have to stretch too far to see my situation in the above Parker Palmer quote. But, dogs aside, it isn’t hard to find some metaphorical mud in my life this early spring. My struggle back into my practice from my illness in January has been more involved and less pleasant than I expected. Like all struggles, it is requiring more patience than I sometimes have. It is taking more persistence than it feels possible to drum up to stick with the journey.
In many ways, my practice feels so messy and muck-filled, indeed so “wet and woeful,” that some days I actually “yearn for the return of ice” – in other words, I wish wistfully for the days when my doctors would not allow me to do any yoga at all. But even as that thought flits across my mind, I know it is ridiculous. I know that the only way through the mud is through the mud. I know that the only way forward is step by step.
From years of practice, I also know that taking these messy steps through the mud teaches us (no, it requires us) to live optimistically. While we’re in the mud, we have to coax ourselves to notice what beauty we can find. We may have to look up away from our path and focus on the light blue sky. Heck, we may have to close our eyes and just breathe. Whatever our tricks are, we use them. Because when we don’t, we feel trapped, antsy, frustrated and grumpy.
We lure ourselves along step by sticky step with the faith that the ground will eventually firm up. And subtly, almost imperceptibly, the journey does become easier. We slip and slide less. We land on our bottoms in the mess less. Until one day we realize that we feel different, better, new or healed. On that day, when we look back, it is not surprising to feel (almost) grateful for the messy, mucky mud. For without it, we would not be standing where we are in the warm sun of a brand new “now.”
Until then, however, have faith and take one sticky, sloppy step at a time.
“We are pressured from within to become more. The Spirit invites us to evolve; to respond graciously to the changes that God may be asking us to embrace. In other words to be open to the transforming power of God in our lives.” Karl Rahner, SJ
After years of spiritual practice, study and reflection, I have come to believe that “becoming” is the highest purpose of this life. The process of “becoming” is most obvious in the years from childhood to young adulthood when we are still students whose very job it is to learn and stretch ourselves, or new professionals exploring various skills, talents and roles.
Sadly, we often leave the act of “becoming” behind as we settle into adulthood. As “grown-ups,” our roles tend to shift and change less frequently. As we climb professional ladders, we are expected to be experts (or at least very, very good) at what we do. Sadly, being acclaimed as good at something can make us complacent. Whether what we do is teach a class, preach a sermon, sell widgets, hit a golf ball or drive a delivery van, we start thinking that our way is the best or only way of doing what we do. We get so busy showing people how it’s done that we forget to watch for other ways that it could be done.
When this happens, when we allow life to box us in, we will become stagnant. This is decidedly “not good.” In fact, I would go so far as to say that stagnation is an intellectual, physical and spiritual death knell.
The highly acclaimed Jesuit priest, Karl Rahner (quoted above), would agree. If we are not becoming, evolving, changing and transforming, we are ignoring or stifling our deepest (he would say God-given) urge. To flip this, when we openly embrace the power of change and the process of becoming more than what we are, we are living into the true reason for our existence.
Resisting stagnation and embracing growth takes some mindfulness and some practice. Embracing change is a choice that we must make consciously. When we choose between being an expert and being a student, we are choosing the more difficult of two paths. But, as with so much else in life, this difficulty is not a bad thing. In fact, challenge can keep us energized, inspired and passionate.
Maintaining a perpetual state of transformation also takes practice. Yoga is a fabulous way to do this. Yoga is truly a practice of transformation and change. We are different – body, mind and spirit – each and every time we come to our mats.
The changes we experience on our yoga mats can be forward-moving – increased flexibility, developing technique, heightened endurance and greater strength. We also change “backward” within our practice. Injuries and illnesses can set us back. Postures – often the ones we have worked hardest to achieve – have an annoying habit of disappearing. Additionally, we often experience long periods of plateau where our physical practice seems stuck. These plateaus often force us to look a little deeper to notice inner changes that are occurring in our mindset and emotional landscape.
Whether we practice a couple of times a week or every day, regularly coming face to face with the inevitability of change (forgive me the repetition) changes us. It changes us deeply. Where once change may have unsettled us, our practice helps us to develop a fundamental comfort with it. We become less reactive both to “good” and “bad” changes. We develop a trust that nothing is constant or “forever.” We build a lasting faith that “this too shall pass” – which allows us to hold our successes and failures lightly.
Best yet, this transformational practice of yoga helps us to tune into the deepest part of who we are. As we do, we begin to understand that our inner process of changing, growing and becoming is even more dramatic and exciting than what we’re seeing physically. We begin to sense and stretch toward the pull of change the way a little seedling senses and stretches toward the light of the sun. As we stretch, grow, learn, develop and become, our hard edges of knowing and of being certain soften. We begin to live and function in a way that feels as soft, pliable, flexible and willing to open as the tender, baby green shoots of a plant. We root into the process of perpetual becoming.
“We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.” – Max Dupree