Optimist: Someone who figures that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster. It’s cha-cha. – Robert Brault
Backward steps have happened to all of us. A boyfriend or girlfriend surprisingly dumps us. We aren’t accepted into the program for which everybody thought we were a shoo-in. We suddenly get sick or injured. We lose the spot we’d worked so hard to earn on the team. We’re let go from our job.
If life is consistent in one way, it’s that it very rarely (if ever) moves only forward. No matter how hard we’re working or how well we’re doing, we can bank on the fact that progress will always be interrupted by a little (or not so little) step backward. This is OK. In fact, it’s more than OK. Backward steps are a necessary part of the dance of life. And they almost always bear gifts that take us further forward than we could ever have gotten without them.
Nothing has reinforced this truth for me like my yoga practice. Over and over again, I’ve had stretches where I’m cruising away on my mat smooth and easy. I might be witnessing a tight muscle open. Or a challenging posture evolve. Or I might simply feel less stiff and sore as I start my practice each morning. These times of progress are awesome. I love them. We all do. But I’m here to tell you that they never last.
Not only do they never last, but their end often seems to come out of the clear blue. In fact, typically, just before a backward step, I take a huge step forward. I can recall many: the day I noticed that I could palm the floor in a forward fold; the first time I lifted into headstand away from the wall; the day I was able to tuck my legs into lotus position and stay there without grimacing.
I remember my backward steps just as vividly. Just days after I noticed I could easily palm the floor in my forward fold, I did it again. And pulled my right hamstring seriously enough that it took months to heal. The day after my first solo headstand, I decided to “go public” and do one in class. Instead, I performed a dramatic back-flop onto the hard wood floor. After months of being able to comfortably tuck into lotus, I came home from a trip to Israel unable to get into the posture at all. For almost a year, I (half-) joked that I’d left my lotus in the Holy Land.
My first yoga step backward felt like a disaster. I catastrophized: What would I do if I couldn’t get the posture back? I over-analyzed: What was wrong with me? I slipped into stubborn denial: meaning I did it despite the pain it caused.
My first yoga step backward also taught me that a step backward is an opportunity to rework the foundations of something you’ve already mastered. A step backward is a chance to change your perspective and recreate your habits. A step backward is always an experience that leaves you both smarter and safer.
With time and experience, I’ve developed the optimistic certainty that steps backward are no more permanent than steps forward. They happen. They’re not super fun. Sometimes they hurt. But they end. And when they do, they leave us in a better place than we were in before. I have not taken a single step backward on my mat for which I have not wound up feeling profoundly grateful. Without the step backward, I would never have gained a critical element of understanding or my body would not have finally changed the way it needed to.
The same is true of steps backward in life. No matter how heart-breaking, a break-up leaves you open for an even better relationship. Not getting into one program often inspires us to think more creatively and broadly about our path. Illness and injury not only leave us keenly aware of the gift of wellness, but more inspired to practice self-care and nurturing habits that keep us healthier going forward. Losing a job is often the kick in the pants we needed to find a position that allows us to stretch and grow.
In short, steps backward are a necessary part of the dance of life. If you embrace them with the same optimistic energy as you do your steps forward, your dance will begin to feel as joyful and lighthearted as the cha cha.
Lately, at the end of class, as we sit for a moment between resting pose and “namaste,” I’ve been inviting my yoga students to reflect back on their practice to find something that makes them smile. Originally, I was thinking that intentionally focusing (even for just a second) on something that makes them happy could send my students into the next part of their day feeling upbeat and grateful. The laughing stories I’ve gotten to hear as everyone rolls up their mats and puts on their shoes have been happy “extras” that have certainly sent me out into my day with a smile on my face.
But the best gift of all was the student who emailed me to tell me that our shared moments of mindfully searching for something to smile about had inspired an all-day practice. Each time she shifted gears during the day, she was pausing to reflect back on whatever she had just completed. Her intention was the same as ours in class – to find something that made her smile. After a few days of this practice, she noticed she was in better spirits at the end of the day. Even better, she found herself drifting off to sleep with a deep sense of satisfaction and gratitude.
The idea of looking back over your day with an eye to moments you’d like to savor is not a new one. In fact, St. Ignatius (who lived in the 1500s in Spain) created a special kind of prayer called the Daily Examen. This prayer is meant to be relatively quick. In it you reflect back on your day with the intention to recall moments in which you felt especially centered or peaceful or close to God. The prayer serves as an opportunity to notice your emotions throughout the day, to express thanks and to look forward with optimism to tomorrow.
There are many non-religious practices which provide similar types of insights and support the same upbeat sense of gratitude. Years ago, my sister introduced me to one I especially like – the gratitude journal. Like the Examen, she taught me to take a few minutes at the end of the day to make a little list of three to five things from my day for which I felt grateful. I was not allowed to list the obvious things – my kids, my husband or my cat. Instead, I had to stretch to find things specific to that particular day, such as glimpse of the ocean, the fact that there had been no line at the market, or the snack-sized Hershey bar I’d found at the bottom of my purse.
While we were on vacation this winter, I learned that my daughter keeps something called a “Thought Bible” on her phone. It is a quick and easy place for her jot down things that make her pause, smile or laugh. Once I knew what she was doing, I found myself looking and listening for “moments” to suggest for her list. We had a good laugh at the airport over several moments from our trip that had made their way into her phone. I love that she has found a modern way to practice awareness and gratitude at such a young age.
Last week, a friend showed me her Bullet Journal, which is both a way to stay organized and a mindfulness practice created by Ryder Carroll. The journal is both a planner and a place to store treasured thoughts and memories. My friend’s is inspiringly beautiful – colorful and filled with little works of art – but I imagine simpler versions could be just as rewarding. In addition to lists of books she wants to read, places she wants to go and dreams she is dreaming, she has set aside a page per month for special moments that she does not want to forget. While I don’t have a Bullet Journal yet, just the idea of starting one makes me smile.
As I was noodling around with the idea of Bullet journaling on the web, I found an article describing a practice that combines Bullet journaling and the Examen. The author, Jessie Bazan, realized that “gratitude worthy” moments were getting lost by the end of the day in the hustle and bustle of her life. Rather than waiting until she sat down to practice the Examen, she created a page in her Bullet Journal to keep a running list of moments that moved her. The immediacy of this practice appeals to me because of its ability to support a more consistent mindfulness and sense of gratitude in our days.
In fact, it occurred to me that my daughter’s “Thought Bible” could easily translate into a “Gratitude Bible” on my own phone or in the phones of my yoga students as we reflect back on our practices in search of something that makes us smile. Just as Ms. Bazan was worried that she was “losing” moments each day that made her feel grateful, the moments that make us smile during a yoga practice are not always the moments that we recall even two hours after we’ve rolled up our mats. In fact, what seems to stick in our minds from our practices is decidedly less uplifting – the posture we toppled out of, or the pose we couldn’t do as well as our neighbor, or the moment we had to retreat to child’s pose because we were tired.
With time and practice, I believe that regularly searching our experiences for moments that make us smile can create a happier life. Taking a moment several times a day to reflect on such moments can leave us feeling profoundly grateful – some would even say blessed. Mindfulness like this (no matter the method you choose to treasure it) can dramatically shift our experience of our lives – leaving us, as St. Ignatius intended, feeling hopeful and intentional as we look forward to tomorrow.
I will admit that it was a surprise to me to realize that my mind was something I needed to learn to manage.
After all, I’ve always celebrated my mind. I give it credit for a lot of the good things in my life. For instance, I am thankful to my intellect for getting me into a good college and landing an interesting job as a 20-something. To this day, I tip my hat to my passion for learning for the fact that I’ve devoured literal stacks of books about yoga and mindfulness. Planning a stellar home wedding? Getting to the next level of Pac Man? Getting a baby to sleep through the night? Training a puppy? Truly, before I was 35 I would have told you there was simply no challenge I couldn’t think my way through.
Let’s just say that I wholeheartedly embraced (still do) the slogan that a “mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
But a year into my yoga practice, having devoured my first stack of books on the practice, I was starting to realize that my thinking mind could lead me astray just as easily as it could help me to figure things out.
You see, when I started practicing, moving into and out of the postures was so hard for me that I literally could not think of anything else or I would fall over. But after a year of practice many of the postures no longer required my full concentration. In fact, I noticed that I was getting proficient enough that I was able multitask. Actually, it was a thought about multi-tasking that made me realize just how much thinking I was doing while practicing.
“I should keep a pad and pen by my yoga mat so I don’t forget all these ideas by the time I finish my practice.”
Thankfully, I was smart enough (ha!) to realize that list making and thinking were not what my practice was designed for. So (don’t laugh) I bought yet another stack of books – these focused on yoga’s mindfulness and meditation. And I discovered that a mind is also a terrible thing to let run amok.
One of yoga’s seminal texts, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, teaches that “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuation of the mind.” (YS 1:2)
The mind is attracted to external “objects” – these can be sights, sounds, sensations and even thoughts. The mind, left to its own devices, will wander willy-nilly from attraction to attraction – gobbling up information, thoughts and ideas like Pac Man used to gobble up all those dots on your arcade screen. A yoga practice is a way to rein in the mind or, to continue the Pac Man analogy, to help us develop a “joy stick” to bring it under our conscious control so that we’re choosing what we “gobble up” rather than running ourselves ragged chasing after every “dot” that happens to show up on the screens of our lives.
In the very first chapter of the sutras, Patanjali blew my mind by suggesting that we needed to start to using our minds the way we use our arms and legs. Just as we wouldn’t allow our arm to swing wildly (just think of the damage we could do in a crowded room!), we ought not to allow the “limb” of our mind swing heedlessly around. Just as our arms and legs tend to rest calmly in their places until we need them, so should our minds rest calmly until we need to solve a problem or come up with an idea or engage in a conversation.
If you spend a minute thinking about choosing what you’re going to think about, you’ll probably end up laughing at the resulting mental circus. (Mine makes a Pac Man screen look calm and orderly.) This is why yoga wisely gives us things to do as we practice being mindful of our roaming mind – synchronizing our breath to our movements, managing where and at what we are looking, balancing precariously on one foot or upside down, maintaining a steady pace of breath when our strength and endurance and (sometimes) emotions are seriously challenged. It is this practice that helps us develop our mental joystick.
Yoga gives us a taste of what living feels like when we bring our focus back (over and over and over again) to what we’re actually experiencing. When we practice yoga with this level of mindfulness, we’re actually learning to stay engaged with our experiences moment to moment. It’s not that our minds stop thinking thoughts. It’s that we’re learning to resist the tempting lure of these thoughts that are like “Pac Dots” pulling our uncontrolled minds from metaphorical screen to screen.
Instead, we use our newly developed joystick (mindfulness) to keep the Pac Man of our mind still where each present moment offers plenty of rich experience to gobble up. What does a single moment offer? The chance to connect with a friend. The opportunity to fully experience your body as it rises to a challenge. The unique sensation of hugging your mom. A bite of an amazing, perfect peach. The feeling of the sun on your face or the breeze in your hair. The sight of your cat stretched out in the window.
In other words, “the moment” contains all of the little experiences that make up your life. Sadly, these experiences are incredibly easy to miss when your mind is running amok like Pac Man (waka waka waka) chasing the dots of your thoughts.
Yes, a mind is absolutely a terrible thing to waste. But so are each of your experiences. So keep practicing with your mindfulness joystick and watch the way you are living life change as you learn to manage your wonderful, brilliant mind rather than letting it manage you.
“Most people will talk the talk, few will walk the walk; be amongst those few.” – Dr. Steve Maraboli
I love to attend yoga classes with a certain teacher each summer when I’m at the beach. Because Bill doesn’t teach the same kind of yoga that I typically practice, some of the students I’ve sent to him have wondered what it is about his classes that keeps me going back for more. Interestingly, though I enjoy the series he puts together, it’s actually not that.
The lure for me is much less tangible. Even a few minutes into my first class with him, I knew Bill was the “real deal.” I remember looking at the friend who was with me and saying, “He’s not just talking the talk. He’s walking the walk.” In other words, I’d found a man who was clearly teaching something he loved passionately, something that had changed him for the better. More than just knowing a great deal about the practice, it was obvious that he was living his yoga. Such authenticity is absolutely magnetic in a teacher.
Upon reflection, when I meet someone who is really, truly “walking the walk” it is always profoundly appealing. I’m thinking about the older woman who works in the deli at the place we frequent for quick, affordable and delicious sandwiches. No matter how busy, she always recognizes me, smiles and seems happy to say hello. She clearly cares that our order is filled correctly and is proud that her service has created “regular” customers.
My kids especially adored one of our friends when they were very little. He always squatted to get eye to eye with them, and spoke to them just like he spoke to us. No baby talk or silliness. He was genuinely interested in what they were thinking and what was happening in their lives. He wasn’t “talking the talk” of a “cool, fun dad,” he was “walking the walk” and my kids knew it. I’m sure they would have argued that he was their friend, not ours. You know what? He would have agreed!
The owner of our local bookstore is another great example. She is obviously a voracious reader. She is thoughtful and clear in the little handwritten reviews she posts beneath recommended titles. She is willing to spend time with me as I search for my next favorite book and can single-handedly convince me to stretch to try something way out of my comfort zone. She never, ever seems to be selling me books (although she clearly is). It mostly feels like I’m talking books with a friend, which is one of my favorite activities. Again, because she is “walking the walk,” it is easy to trust her and even easier to send fellow readers her way.
Just this week, in an uncanny series of coincidences (if you believe in those) this topic has bubbled up over and over again. First, one of my favorite spirituality writers (Richard Rohr) wrote an essay about how critical it is that religious people shift from thinking and talking about what they believe to figuring out how to live their beliefs in the world. In other words, they (we) need to “walk the walk” in order for faith to make a difference in our own lives and to the world around us.
A day later, while teaching my Yoga and Philosophy class at Villanova, a student asked why I had decided to include the physical practice of yoga in a philosophy class. I didn’t even need to take a breath. “While we could easily talk about yoga philosophy for a full semester, we would never be able to grasp what it has to teach us if we didn’t practice ‘doing’ it too.” The man who founded Ashtanga yoga, Pattabhi Jois, was famous for saying “Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.” In other words, we get on our mats to give ourselves a safe, easy place to work with its philosophical teachings. With all that practice, it is much more likely that, when we head back out into our lives, we will “walk the walk” of our yoga.
Finally, on Sunday morning the preacher at our church gave a sermon on this very topic. Again, the message was that for faith to be sustaining in hard times and good, we need to do a whole lot more than just think and talk about it. We have to put it into practice in every aspect of our lives. Trust me when I tell you that I had a hard time not jumping up and shouting “Don’t just talk the talk. Walk the walk!”
And (please believe me that this actually happened), just now, as I searched for a St. Francis of Assisi quote I love so that I didn’t mangle it (“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”), up popped the following quote that I had never heard before:
Message received. And forwarded on to you, dear friends. “Walk the walk.”