While on vacation in Puerto Rico we decided to go deep sea fishing. The captain’s website contained a reminder to take motion sickness medicine an hour prior to departure. While I considered doing so, I decided risking being drowsy during our adventure wasn’t necessary as I’ve always found the bobbing sensation of being on a boat to be among the most soothing feelings of all.
In the words of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, this was a big mistake. Huge.
All was well as we puttered up and down the coastline in search of bait fish, but as soon as we headed out to deeper waters everything changed. The swells were intense and relentless. With the bigger waves, it felt like we were climbing a mountain only to fall off the top, slamming into the trough. If I lost sight of the horizon even for a second (easy to do as the boat pitched on the surf), my equilibrium would be thrown. My head was spinning. My stomach was churning. I was seasick for the first time in my life.
As I perched on my seat in the bow of the boat I poured all of my inner resources into managing myself. Deep, smooth breaths all the way to the bottom of my belly seemed to help sooth my queasiness. Holding my body in an upright posture that was relaxed rather than rigid helped me to roll with the movements of the boat instead of fighting them. Keeping my gaze softly fixed on the horizon was critical. More than once, despite my dire situation, I had to smile. I felt peculiarly like I was practicing asana on my yoga mat – breath, alignment of my body and a steady drishti or gaze.
It is said that holding your drishti or gaze point when practicing is a step in developing a deeper focus. It is a way of mindfully disconnecting from sensory input so your mind can turn inward to settle into the quiet beneath the thoughts, sounds and sights that constantly bombard us every moment of the day. Practicing this skill is a way to move deeper into the meditative experience of practicing yoga.
As it is when I’m practicing yoga, maintaining a steady gaze on the boat was challenging for me. On my mat, I find it hard to keep my eyes from roaming. While I’ve never been one to watch others as they practice with me, I regularly catch myself staring at the “Om” banner on the wall of my studio, inspecting a piece of lint on the rug to determine if it’s a bug or not or taking a peek at my reflection in the mirror to check my alignment. Sometimes I even realize that my eyes have closed as I sink into a posture I love.
On the boat, I found my distractions were even more, well, distracting. Sometimes it was an individual wave that would catch my gaze and pull it away from the safe haven of the horizon. When this happened, most often I found myself fixated on a coming wave thinking, “Holy cow! That one is huge!” But other times, it was the bigger picture of the churning sea around me that would pull at my attention. Because we were in open water I could, if I wasn’t careful, see literally miles of waves coming at our boat. Knowing that I was going to have to navigate the up and down and rocks and rolls of each one seemed brutally impossible. This was much more frightening to me than the occasional gigantic swell. It was in these moments that my steady focus would start to slide toward panic. A little voice in my head would shriek, “There’s no way I can keep this up!”
The first few times I slid into panic, dragging my focus back to the horizon, to my breath and to the way I was holding my body took a staggering amount of willpower. Then, as I was redirecting myself again, I realized that though incredibly difficult, this was no different than dragging my focus back to the moment at hand when my mind has wandered off to the grueling backbends that await me at the end of my practice while I’m still doing my sun salutations, or when I’m still trying to figure out what went right or wrong in the last posture while I’m meant to be focusing on the current one, or when I’m making lists or solving problems rather than giving the yoga my full attention.
And, with that, I relaxed, secure in the knowledge that I could get through this. I was confident in the understanding that this stuff worked. Better yet? That It worked really, really well.
In fact, it was as I dragged my focus back from yet another distraction that I had an epiphany that I pray I will carry with me for a very long time. That rolling, churning ocean was no different than my crazy, hectic life. If I could stay focused on each moment on that boat ride thereby avoiding panic and even sickness, why couldn’t I do the same during my regular days? If taking one wave at a time on that boat was working, couldn’t I use the same technique to navigate an especially nutty day at home? I knew, as I found myself enjoying the feeling of the sun on my face while I gazed at the horizon and breathed deeply, that I was onto something much bigger than any of the waves around me.