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 the pretty inside that counts.”
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.