“Maybe you are searching among the branches for what only appears in the roots.” Rumi

The chance to share my yoga practice with a friend is always a happy thing. Not too long ago, as a friend and I were rolling up our mats after a great, especially bendy practice, she said, “Wow! Your breath sounded so strong today.”

Because we had both had some physical successes during the practice, I was a little surprised by her comment. Typically, after we finish moving and breathing side by side, we rehash a posture that went surprisingly well, have a little laugh about one that did not or talk almost academically (yoga geeks) about a new posture that one or both of us is working on. I took a moment to think and then replied, “Maybe that’s because for so much of the winter the breath was all I could count on when I practiced. I guess maybe I’ve been refocusing on the basics.”

Thinking a little more afterwards, I see that this is true. My body was so unreliable all winter that I never knew what to expect from it each time I unrolled my mat. But day after day, no matter what was going on with me physically, I could count on my breath to be there. While it’s always been a critical part of my practice, it’s been a long time since I’ve invested time really working with it – keeping it both strong and smooth, maintaining its pace when I’m surrendering to a stretch and preventing it from becoming overly harsh or forced when I’m working hard. And, without a conscious decision to do so, this is precisely the work I’ve been doing for the last several months.

What is more fascinating is the way this time spent refocused on the basics has changed my physical practice. Without a lot of fanfare or advance planning, I am again working on postures that I wasn’t sure would reappear after months of “Granny yoga.” Not only have they made a return to my practice, but some that have not shifted in literally years are suddenly opening up to me. If you’d asked me, these physical advances are what I would have thought my friend and I would be talking about that day rather than the breath that we both mastered nearly 20 years ago.

To borrow from Rumi’s language, these challenging postures are the tippy top branches of yoga’s tree. They are eye catching. They are inspiring. Because they are just a little out of reach, they draw us to keep practicing in the hopes that we will one day figure them out. They are a large part of what lures us back to our mats day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year.

But, as Rumi implies, we have to be careful when reaching for these alluring branches. Searching way up there can lead us astray. And not only on a yoga mat.

Think about all the things you do that get more complicated, fancier, or flashier the more “advanced” you become. Last night I embarked on an elaborate, gourmet macaroni and cheese that took way too long to make. What was my biggest take away from that project? It wasn’t anything fancy or advanced. I learned (well, re-learned) that the most important step is way back at the beginning of the process when combining the ingredients for the sauce. You have to go slowly and be super patient to ensure that the milk and flour combine for the creamy texture you really want in mac & cheese. In other words, my gourmet adventure took me back to the basics – roots that developed slowly with every meal I’ve cooked for the last 25 years.

My daughter has been playing the piano again. When she first sat down, she pulled out the book of sonatinas that she was working on when she decided to stop taking lessons five years ago. She said the all those tiny notes and super-fast tempos used to make her feel like a piano-playing-superhero. While she found she could still fumble her way through these pieces, her return taught her a powerful lesson. All those tiny notes are the same as the notes she was playing when she first picked out “Hot Cross Buns” at the age of three. Just hitting them isn’t enough. What makes them sound like a superhero is playing the song is working on fingering, phrasing, the right touch and expression. She, like me, had to go back to her “roots” in order to stretch back up into the “branches” of her music.

This holds true for whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re stretching toward, whatever is challenging you. Pause for a moment. Check in with your intentions. Have you become distracted by the beautiful, alluring branches all the up there at the tippy top of your particular “tree?” Whether you are raising children, learning how to practice a martial art, working to stay happily married to the person you’ve already loved through countless stages of life, or striving for the next step in your career, a look down (maybe a serious, studious, long look down) at the foundational elements of your work will pay great dividends.

Get back to basics. Reacquaint yourself with the roots of whatever you’re working on. When you do, as happened to me on my mat, you might look up to realize there is no need to continue to search for the branches. You may find that you have already reached them.