“The best cure for the body is a quiet mind.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
Quiet is hard to come by at my house. It’s late August and the cicadas in my yard have taken their “song” to new levels. (Lordy, that noise grates on my nerves!) While one of my kids has made his way back to college, two are still here at home filling the house with the incessant sounds of music and Netflix. My husband, as I type, is using his booming “lawyer voice” on a conference call with three colleagues. One dog is tip-tapping on the wood floors as he paces from window to window looking for birds while the other gives himself a slurpy bath.
I suspect the cacophony that surrounds me is not atypical. And it’s not just the world around us that is loud. We are increasingly choosing to add noise to our lives in moments that could yield some quiet. It is rare anymore to see someone walking in town without headphones in their ears. The commuters I know swear by podcasts to make their journeys more rewarding. My kids’ grandmothers often have the television on “just for the noise.” And I haven’t turned on one of my cars in weeks without being blasted by a radio left on and turned up to “eleven” by someone in my family.
Many yoga studios (mine included) play music in their classes. For some (not mine) their playlists are actually one of their selling points. I suppose this makes a degree of sense in today’s world. After all, if people aren’t comfortable with a few minutes of quiet on the way to the grocery store, the idea of 60-90 minutes of quiet while practicing yoga could seem daunting. For some, background noise actually improves their ability to focus. This is especially true in my family, where three of the five of us have ADHD. Even I (with no attention deficits at all) find music helpful when I’m trying to focus on days when my mind is particularly scattered.
So it doesn’t surprise me at all that yoga’s invitation to embrace quiet within and without can be one of its most challenging aspects. If accepted, however, this invitation to some quiet leads to yoga’s most healing and powerful gifts.
Ashtanga yoga has eight limbs. The first four of these are limbs of action. The first two contain yoga’s ten moral guidelines. The third is the postures we do on our mats. The fourth teaches mindful breathing. The last four limbs describe successively deeper states of meditation. Quiet is the gateway to these practices. Until we are comfortable with quiet surroundings, we cannot hope to learn how to quiet ourselves – our endless chattering thoughts, our surging emotions and our wild swings of energy.
The first of these four meditative branches of yoga is called pratyahara, which means sense-withdrawal. This branch teaches us to re-direct our awareness away from the sights and sounds surrounding us, choosing instead to engage with our breath, our movements, or the actual moment as it is unfolding. Just as the most challenging yoga postures can require weeks and months of practice to perform, this type of mindful focus requires steady, persistent and patient practice. Years of it.
Over and over again as we practice, we learn to notice when our mind has wandered off. Studies show that we regularly think upwards of 60,000 thoughts a day! (No wonder inner peace and quiet can seem hard to find!) Thinking is what our minds are designed to do and we need to set aside any need or desire to stop these thoughts from happening. Instead, we learn to allow our flow of thoughts to serve a similar function as background music does for my loved ones with ADHD as they write papers or memorize vocabulary. In other words, we can actually allow our stream of thoughts to prompt us to focus on the moment at hand – our breath, the alignment of our body, or that still pool of simply “being” deep within.
A key step in this practice is setting the tone for our noticing. When we notice that our awareness has drifted off with one of our thoughts, we must be gentle and compassionate. We must cease to judge ourselves – setting aside the need to label our attempts as “good” or “bad.” A friend says to herself, in a quiet tone as close to a loving kindergarten teacher as she can muster, “Oh dear. This is so hard for you. Let’s try again.” And she’s spot on. It is incredibly hard to maintain a steady focus when life is whirling along around us. This may indeed be the hardest thing you ever do.
But trying to choose quiet is so very worth it. Giving yourself even the briefest respite from the constant chatter “upstairs” is profoundly beneficial. A little inner quiet has been shown to reduce stress. It is an effective way to control anxiety. It supports emotional stability and is a great way to develop better self-awareness. It can help stave off the memory loss that comes with aging. And it can make us kinder, more compassionate people. Today’s physicians seem to agree with Napoleon Bonaparte – a quiet mind might just be the cure you need the most.
So, while clearly neither you nor I can control the cicadas, try to find some times in your day when you can choose some silence. Perhaps you could make one of your commutes a quiet one with no phone and no podcasts. Or maybe you could choose to turn off the news while you’re getting ready in the morning. Or you might possibly consider leaving the music off during your yoga practice tomorrow morning.
Remember, when you turn off the noise around you, the “noise” inside might seem even louder. Don’t panic. It’s only practice. And with time, you may actually get as comfortable with quiet as you already are balancing on one foot.
My dad felt strongly that I should learn to drive in a stick-shift car. He said it was because I needed to be able to drive anything “in case of emergency.” I think it was because he preferred me driving his rickety, mid-1970s Honda Civic rather than his swanky sedan. Shifting gears didn’t come naturally for me. In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t get out of the driveway during my first few driving lessons. To this day, I still have a little PTSD from the sound and sensation of grinding gears.
There is a fluid grace to shifting gears well. It’s not enough to master the mechanical interplay between the clutch and gas or brake. You have to listen to the car. You have to watch the tachometer. Recognizing that moment when it’s time to shift gears is less like following instructions and more like a feeling. Even now, with 30+ years of experience, starting from a dead-stop on a hill requires a little leap of faith and a whole lot of confidence. When I was 16, it was nothing short of terrifying.
My best friend lived on my way to high school and would beg me to pick her up. Despite being a teenaged girl who would do nearly anything to avoid being alone, the gigantic hill between her house and school terrified me. It was a new-driver “perfect storm.” Picking her up required me to take one of the three main routes to school so there were always other students driving in front of and behind us on that hill. Because my best friend was a classic 16-year-old, leaving the windows up and hoping no one noticed us was not an option. I knew she would be screeching and waving frantically at everyone around us.
To make matters worse, at the top of the hill was one of those stoplights that seems to allow only 2.5 cars through at a time. This meant that I would have to navigate that panic-inducing shift from a dead-stop into first gear on a serious incline three times or more. So I told her “no.” I said “no” for weeks. But my best friend didn’t like that answer. And I didn’t like to be alone (remember, I was 16). So, eventually, I agreed, with white knuckles and sweaty palms, to pick her up.
My fear and anticipation of changing gears on that hill turned out to be way worse than actually doing so. I’ll never know if it was the threat of public humiliation or my dad’s excellent teaching skills, but I don’t remember ever stalling on one of those morning drives. What I do know is that all that practice paid off because, to this day, I am relatively unflappable in our vintage, stick-shift Miata.
I’m not sure shifting gears comes any more easily or naturally to me in life than it did in my dad’s old Honda. Here I sit, in late August, feeling the same slightly queasy anticipation that I used to feel when I thought about navigating that hill on the way to school. Will I have the stamina to handle the “it’s-still-dark-when-the-alarm-rings” early mornings when the class I teach at a local college resumes? When will I fit in my daily yoga practice or find the time to write these essays? How will I squeeze in the homework for the class I’m registered to take? Will my daughter and I finish Grey’s Anatomy before she graduates? (Seriously, will we?)
Decades of experience with late August jitters mixed with a decade or so of yoga’s mindfulness have paid off as handsomely as decades behind the wheel. As I am now able to confidently get going on a hill without freaking out, I am also able to find some inner peace this time of year. I know that, as I face a new season filled with shifts and changes, my mind has a habit of making lists of worries. I also know that not all of the worries on these mental lists are worth worrying about. (Example A: Grey’s Anatomy.) In fact, I know that most of these worries are better left un-worried as (for me at least) worrying makes mountains of smaller (mole) hills.
Like shifting gears in a car, if done mindfully, shifting gears in life can be done with fluid grace. If I stay in the moment, rather than getting ahead of myself, I know I will feel calmer. If I pay as much attention to how I’m feeling as I do to my “To Do List,” I know that I will better navigate the coming changes. If I approach these new beginnings with the same quiet confidence (and willingness to take a leap of faith) that I developed on that hill on the way to high school, I know I will be just fine.
I also know that if I do stall out once or twice, I can be grateful that I’m no longer 16 and obsessed with what people think. All I have to do is take a deep breath, turn the key and I’ll be back in gear.
If pressed, I’d probably admit that I’m not a huge fan of surprises. In part, this could be a little PTSD from a significant surprise party that I was a victim of was thrown for me. Most likely though, this is probably the knee-jerk reaction of a lifelong planner and recovering control freak. In short, despite my hard-fought “recovery,” if given the choice, I’d choose to be informed and (if possible) prepared for anything coming my way.
But, if I were to actually examine the surprises that pepper my life, my answer would be very different. Not only do I not mind surprises, they are often the most memorable, most treasured moments of my days. You see, I’m a teacher and my absolute, most-favorite thing about teaching is the way my students surprise me.
Though each surprise is different, they all do the same thing for me: they force me to shed my assumptions about the way things are going to go as well as about the people I am teaching.
It continues to surprise me that the classes I am most proud of are often the classes that went wildly astray; the classes where I let go of the steering wheel and joined my students for the ride. For instance, one morning I offered a poetry activity planned to give my class of college students the chance to notice the lenses through which they think, learn and interpret metaphor. Instead, a long and powerful group conversation took place about how yoga can help you navigate life’s (often surprising) twists and turns. I chose in the moment to ditch my lesson plan and let them keep talking. To this day, I believe they learned more yoga than if I’d held to our plan, wrapped up the discussion and had the group unroll their yoga mats.
A different morning and a different class taught me the power of letting go of my assumption about how a class “should” go. The philosophy portion of a teacher training workshop led to such open and honest sharing that I chucked our schedule out the window. Looking back, the long conversation that ensued was the pivotal moment when that cohort of students bonded. Not only were we able to make up the hour we “stole” from anatomy that day, but they remain closely in touch years later.
No planning or preparation can create moments like these in a classroom. In my experience, they are always surprises. My job, I’m learning, is to be watchful and hopeful that they will appear. My job is to be ready to trust them when I sense one unfolding. My job is to be willing to set aside lesson plans and syllabi to embrace them when they happen. (See? I told you I was recovering from my need to be in control!)
It’s not just plans and preparation that being a teacher is teaching me to hold loosely. My students teach me over and over again that, no matter how well I know them, they each have the power to surprise me.
Year after year in a teacher training program, there is the moment when one of my students volunteers to jump into the proverbial deep end by being the first to teach one of my classes while I observe. The moment itself is almost always a surprise. You really can’t plan for when the right mix of students and the ready student teacher will converge. But it is no longer a surprise to me when I’m wrong about who this brave student will be. In all these years, I have never once guessed right! Another thing that no longer surprises me is the goosebumps I get, without fail, watching my student spread her wings as a teacher.
It’s not just in huge moments like this that my students surprise me. There are small moments of sudden courage, such as the one when a long-time student suddenly attempted an inversion she had decided against for years. There are quiet moments of confidence, when students surprise me with their stories. They teach me over and over again that it’s impossible to know what’s going on behind every smiling face so it’s better, no matter how well you know someone, to be curious than complacent. Some of the best surprises happen long after we’ve parted ways, when I receive a note or call with a story about how the yoga I shared with them changed their lives.
So, it turns out that I do like surprises. Actually, I love them. My students have taught me to love being derailed and to (sometimes) love being wrong. Best yet, my students have taught me to hope and expect that everyone in my life can and will surprise me. My husband of almost 25 years, my almost-grown children, my mom and dad, the priest I’ve heard preach a hundred times and the person helping me at Target – they are all capable of brightening my days with a surprise.
I hope someone surprises you today.
“Go and love someone exactly as they are. And then watch how quickly they transform into the greatest, truest versions of themselves. When one feels seen and appreciated in their own essence, one is instantly empowered.” – Wes Angelozzi
I write fairly regularly about my very first yoga class. I was wearing the wrong clothes. I had the wrong mat. I couldn’t touch my shins, let alone my toes. I had some serious trouble following instructions so I spent as much time looking around the room at what everyone else was doing as doing anything on my own mat. Let’s just say – it wasn’t pretty.
But (and this is a humongous, important, life-changing “but”) at the end of that class, I felt something. I felt somehow different than I’d ever felt after exercising. Despite my inabilities, yoga had reached out and met me exactly where I was. It had received me exactly as I was and had shared its gifts with me.
While I would have been hard-pressed to tell you what those gifts were (other than that I had exercised the ability to laugh at myself, which is an important life skill by the way), I knew I wanted more. So began a love affair that has spanned 16 years and is showing no signs of fading.
As someone who arrived at yoga with absolutely no physical aptitude for the practice, the speed at which I fell in love with yoga can seem surprising. I was fully hooked by the time I’d used up my first 10-class card.
I firmly believe that my attraction to the practice had a great deal to do with the fact that it didn’t matter if I was good or bad at it. It didn’t matter to my teacher, or my fellow students or to yoga itself. I don’t know why it didn’t matter to me (this is usually the biggest tripping point for beginners), but I remain profoundly grateful that I didn’t care that I couldn’t do more than I could do in each class. I was free to practice exactly at my level and I felt just as good after class as the human pretzels surrounding me.
Being loved and accepted exactly as you are is an astoundingly rare experience in this world. It is so unusual that, when you get a taste of it, it lights you up. To borrow Wes Angelozzi’s word, it is empowering.
Rather than making you complacent or stagnant, being loved exactly as you are creates dynamic growth and change. When you are fully accepted, weak spots and all, your fear of failure is obliterated. You discover the courage to stretch toward or even past your limits. You begin to crave growth. You begin to yearn to become the greatest version of you that is possible. And (this is the most exciting news of all), as you become that person you discover that there is always and will always be a greatest version of you available to keep you stretching. I suspect you will keep at it (whatever “it” may be) for years and years.
Experiencing this kind of love and acceptance changes you. As described above, the change starts with you – your own growth and transformation. But the change goes well beyond that. For as you receive the gifts of being totally seen and accepted exactly as you are, you begin to accept and love others this same way. (It happens so subtly that you may not even know you’re doing it at first.)
Imagine for a moment your friendships, your marriage, your work relationships, your relationships with your teachers or students, or your relationships with your children. Imagine what could happen if you went and loved these people exactly as they are. Imagine the potential. Imagine more than their growth. Imagine how you could transform together.
When I was in seventh grade I was in awe of a pretty eighth grader named Chris. She had blonde, Farrah Fawcett hair. Her mother allowed her not only to use mascara, but to use a lot of it. And she wore Candies (Do you remember those sky high sandals with wooden heels that were all the rage in the 1970s?) with her skin tight Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. She was quite simply the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in real life. I was 100% certain that someone like that would have no idea that I even existed.
Also when I was in seventh grade I was diagnosed with a bone infection that gave me a nasty limp. I didn’t realize how bad my gait had become until my limp and my idol collided in the hallways of my school. I was walking to class when I heard a girl behind me snarl, “Jeez! I wish they would keep these cripples out of our way!” She actually pushed me into the lockers along the wall as she clip-clopped past me, sashaying on her high heels. Mortified tears sprung to my eyes as I realized that not only did Chris know I existed, but she was disgusted by me.
I got home from school that day still devastated by the encounter. When my grandmother, who was visiting, asked me about my day, I told her what had happened. She gave me a hug and a pearl of wisdom I’ve never forgotten:
It’s a lesson that didn’t sink all the way in right away. At twelve, being pretty was still pretty important.Heck, looking pretty was still pretty important to me for years (maybe decades) afterward! But even at the tender age of twelve, I understood what my grandmother was saying. If you acted “ugly” it didn’t matter how pretty you were. According to my grandmother, actions didn’t just speak louder than words, they spoke louder than appearances, too.
It wasn’t until I embraced yoga as a way of life that I was able to fully grasp and embrace my grandmother’s wisdom. You see, yoga is a very effective way to change the way your body appears. Practicing yoga can help you slim down. It can help you develop muscle tone. It creates a strong, defined core. It can improve your posture, which not only gives you an air of confidence, but makes everything in your closet fit a little better. It can transform clumsy people (I’m speaking personally here) into people who move more gracefully through their days.
In short, yoga can make you pretty on the outside, and this is what initially draws so many people to the practice.
As much as I loved the newly defined muscles in my arms, I found myself more enamored with other changes I was seeing in myself. I developed a more compassionate approach to myself as I navigated this challenging practice – accepting failure, acknowledging weakness, embracing challenges, celebrating tiny successes. More importantly, I noticed that I was acting more compassionate and kinder to the people in my life. As I learned to laugh at myself rather than get frustrated, I noticed my sense of humor expanding and brightening my life off my mat as well.
Each time I practiced I learned something else – a skill, an insight into the way I am wired, an awareness of habits, how good it feels to focus. All of this learning created a craving for more learning. My inner student was awakened and I loved her! I loved feeling curious. I loved feeling smart. I loved this way more than I loved the way my muscles looked.
And I did love my new muscles, but not because of how they looked. I loved feeling strong. Feeling strong made me braver and more confident. It made me more relaxed. It made me willing to try new things. Feeling strong somehow made me feel generous and aware that I was capable of changing someone else’s day with a kind word or gesture. My sense of strength also carried into my beliefs – making me more willing than ever before to stand up and support causes and ideas that felt important.
It turns out that while yoga can and will make you pretty on the outside, that is the tiniest tip of the iceberg. The beauty that yoga creates that will keep you coming back to your mat day after day and year after year is a beauty deep within. This inner beauty will help transform you into the person you yearn to be. It will help you light up the world around you. It will entirely change your experience of your life.
While I’m pretty sure my grandmother never did a single yoga posture in her entire life, she and I have arrived at the same deep, somewhat counter-cultural understanding. While pretty, like my gorgeous, fashionable adolescent idol, is nice to look at for a moment or two, that’s really all it’s got going for it. To borrow my grandmother’s words, it is absolutely “the pretty inside” that gives you the compassion and the strength and the creativity and the humility to change this world.