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dentistI try to practice yoga off my mat even more regularly than I practice on my mat. In the end, after all, the practice is meant to help us live more meaningful lives. What does this mean? In a nutshell, I suppose I’m trying to be a good person, but I think it’s helpful to make a lofty goal like this more specific. So, when I’m practicing yoga in my life, I’m specifically trying to:

  • “just do it” (“it” being the right thing) even when I don’t want to. Another way to say this is “don’t procrastinate.”
  • treat failures as opportunities to learn and change
  • stay in the moment rather than zipping off with daydreams and worries about the future or the past
  • be brave when I feel scared
  • be mindful of the ripple effects of my actions
  • be kind even when I don’t feel like it
  • clean up after myself when I make a mess
  • stay focused on the details of life rather than distracting myself with worries or gossip or my phone or…
  • take a deep breath rather than immediately react
  • stay curious and try to understand the “whys” behind the “whats”
  • keep learning and growing and stretching and changing
  • speak and act from a place of deep truth

Over the years, I’ve found that life practically gift wraps some experiences as opportunities to practice yoga off the mat. Oddly enough, for me, one of my living nightmares, oral surgery, turned out to be one of these experiences. Don’t worry. I’m going to leave the gory details out. I’m a complete dental-phobe and will describe my experiences as if you are too.

  • Late this spring, just as I was feeling virtuous and a little victorious to actually be at my semi-annual dental appointment (an hour I dread like no other), my dentist informed me I had a pocket in my gum and needed to go see a periodontist to have it “taken care of.” This offered me the chance to be brave and “just do it.” Unfortunately, I didn’t. Instead I procrastinated (a failure to live my yoga). Eventually, I mustered the courage to make the necessary appointment (turning failure into success). Then, I actually showed up to the appointment (more bravery) and we set a date.
  • For the next three weeks, I had countless opportunities to “stay in the moment.” Every time my mind skittered away to the looming surgery, I took a deep breath and refocused on what was happening at the moment. There were a lot of great things happening, too. Hiking in New Hampshire, laughing with my brother and his wife, cheering at a baseball game, practicing yoga overlooking a lake, reading in a hammock. If I hadn’t practiced yoga off my mat, I could have diluted each of these experiences with cold, clammy fear.
  • During this waiting time, I was a little more stressed than usual. It took real work for me to resist the urge to worry and fret. As we all know, added stress can make us testy. When I wasn’t on my “staying in the moment” game, I sometimes snapped or jumped to judgment. In other words, I wasn’t always “kind.” “Paying attention to the ripple effects of my actions” helped me notice when I’d inadvertently hurt someone because I was stressed and gave me the opportunity to “clean up after myself” by making amends. Each time I slipped up, I had the chance to “treat failure as an opportunity to learn” and I got a little better at managing my tongue.
  • When the day of the surgery finally arrived, it was almost a relief. I bravely walked into the office facing down one of my greatest fears. As I settled into the chair waiting for the numbing gel to work, I made a conscious decision to practice yoga throughout the experience. Mostly, I expected this to involve mindful breathing. What I didn’t expect was how much I’d be working to stay in the moment and managing my reactions.
  • It turns out that numbing gel only works to make the Novocain shot painless on the outside of the gum. Just before the surgeon gave me the shots I needed for the inside of the gum, she said, “This is going to be the worst part.” Needless to say, my whole body went rigid in terrified anticipation. I was yoga breathing as I panicked. Then I noticed that the first of three shots didn’t actually hurt that bad – in other words, I paid attention to the details of what was actually happening rather than immediately reacting to my gigantic fear. I relaxed my clenched hands, I exhaled and I refocused. I had to do this more than once as I got the next two shots (again – failure as a chance to learn), but each time I did, it helped.
  • The remainder of the two-hour procedure was an exercise in breathing and focusing. When I practice yoga on my mat, my breath receives almost all of my focus even when I’m doing a posture that is very difficult for me. I’m not just performing the act of breathing, but I’m listening to the quality of my breath. Listening to my breath is soothing, but is also informative. If I hear my breath get raspy or tight, I know I’m working too hard. If I stop hearing it at all, I know I’m way out over my skis and need to back off and regroup. The same was true in the dentist’s chair.
  • When I’m practicing yoga, I don’t like being interrupted. (Just ask my kids.) Paradoxically, interruptions can bring out the most unkind side of me just when I’m deepest into a practice designed to make me kinder. During my surgery, my focus was interrupted repeatedly and I found myself reflexively feeling annoyed. In this case, however, the person interrupting me was my surgeon. It probably goes without saying that I didn’t want to seem irritable, unkind or rude to her right then. Therefore, each time she decided to chat or to ask me a question, I immediately inhaled deeply. This calming breath gave me enough space from my irritation to choose to be respectful and kind.
  • Sometimes, my surgeon wanted to share with me what she was doing or seeing in my mouth. This is her passion, her life’s work. That I really, really didn’t want to know what was going on (I only wanted it to be over) was not something she understood. Her informative interruptions of my (attempted) meditative state gave me the chance to be curious – curious enough to try understand the “why” behind her behavior. It also allowed me the opportunity to keep learning – even though it was not a subject that stirred any interest in my heart.
  • Precisely as I heaved an enormous sigh of relief that it was over, my surgeon began talking about future procedures I might need. A replacement filling. A root canal. This was the first moment in the entire two-and-a-half-hour odyssey that I started to “lose it.” Tears sprang to my eyes. A dozen snarky remarks flashed through my mind. Maybe it was the 150 minutes of yoga, maybe it was the 15 years of continuous practice. I’ll never know. But instead of crying or letting even one of those snarky comments fly, I took a deep breath and spoke from my deepest truth: “We’re going to have to talk about this later because, otherwise, I’m going to fall apart.”

Here’s the moral to my tale: The doctor did a double-take and then did something I didn’t expect. She bent down and gave me a hug. Which was exactly what I needed.

Keep practicing. It will bring you exactly what you need too.