Missives from the Mat #11: Why Yoga?

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I fell in love with my first svasana*, corpse pose, back in 1998. My first child was about six months old and I wanted to try something new to get my bearings on my re-formed body.

I had illusions that my body would return to its pre-child state, that with yoga, I could ease myself back into a world of fitness and of edgy, corporate communications and public relations agility and the pre-baby woman I was. That I’d get my groove back.

I had no clue what I was in for. The person that yoga restored me to is so different from the person I thought I was.

When I was younger, much younger, I remember my mother coming home from her yoga “classes.” I use quotations because I’m not sure what the classes were like back then, in the 70s, and what she actually did. I recall vividly of her *lying on her back, just lying there! and saying, “this is yoga.”

As I’ve aged, but before I allowed yoga to know me (not me to know yoga) I remember thinking, “Bullshit. That’s called ‘lying on your back.’ ”

Another time she came back from her classes, her hair in a scarf and she in a buttoned-down shirt of my dad’s knotted at the waist and wearing beige velour pants. I encountered her again laid on her back as she lifted one leg up in the air. The raised leg was straight and the foot was parallel with the ceiling; the lower leg was flat on the floor. Her hands were by her sides. “This is another yoga move,” she said, as the sunlight through the window set the room softly aglow. She did seem calmer. I was about five or six.

As a child, I’m sure I was eager to learn more, to connect with her in a way that she clearly felt she could have both the advantage and teach me without it seeming like a “lesson” and also to also connect with me in a nonthreatening way in which we were both learning new things.

Mom could extrapolate information and then diffuse it in a completely unique way that, given the right circumstances and a goodly amount of general ignorance in her audience, she would reign omniscient. Yoga in the US was esoteric and weird back then, nothing like the mainstream, studio-on-every-corner, $6.9 billion industry (hey! where’s my share?! oh wait, that’s not yogic) world it inhabits now.

Little did I know, that some 25 years later, I’d begin my own journey on my mat, with my children equally entranced by this mysterious relationship between movement and silence. And I’d also learn that what she was doing, was yoga.

Recovery from trauma

So when I started, I was attuned to the fact that something had changed forever and that even though I knew it was impossible, I endeavored to regain some semblance of my physical being despite having given birth to an eight pound baby whose head measured 14cm. I won’t go into the discussion of childbirth as trauma / business in a hospital, but I will say this: it’s far from a nurturing environment. Pregnancy is one thing, being “prenatal” is something else entirely.

As I look back on it now, the fact is that I knew I was seeking healing. I knew what I’d experienced — all of it, from the invasive tests, to the low count on a premature CVS test, to the weight checks and belly measurements, to the peeing in a cup every two weeks for the last eight weeks, to the false labor, to the rejection at the hospital, to the being up all night, to the final moments, to the wholly disturbing unscheduled induction… to the birth to the recovery, to the incessant overnight interruptions for blood pressure and temperature taking, to being released home, to nursing, to insomnia, to returning to work — was a major disturbance to my qi.

On a level I’ve only recently allowed, it was all trauma. I was angry. I told Mom everything that had happened, but she didn’t seem to acknowledge in on a level that I needed; she brushed it off and said, “that’s the way it goes, kid,” about it all while also allowing some tenderness, but overall, little sympathy.

I remember her telling me I was angry. I didn’t think I was, but as I look back now, I see it. But I didn’t know that yoga would bring me peace and self-acceptance (and still does, despite my crazy ego-induced fallacy that I don’t need self-acceptance). I just went to yoga classes to get my body back, right?

Everyone seeks healing in one way or another

As I’ve continued my journey, now with its latest step as a yoga “teacher,” I’ve had to allow and ultimately embrace jubilantly, actually, that those of us who seek yoga do so because we allow, finally, that we need to be healed.

Some people have families, some people are alone. Some have tight hamstrings, some have loose hamstrings. Others have jet lag, some are mad at the world, some are mad at themselves, some have too much going on, others have too little going on. Some people are sick, some people are healthy. Some people have fears and anxieties, some people are in recovery. No, strike that. Everyone is recovery.

Everyone in that room, on their mat, has a story. Every morning for each person, no matter where they live, starts differently.

One person’s morning might start gently, with a bird’s call outside the window and the golden light streaming into the room between the cracks in the venetian blinds. The eye lids slowly open and flutter, blinking back and forth between near-darkness and sunlight. A stretch in the bed as an arm extends ushering a big inhale as a leg joins in the dance.

Another person’s morning might start from a gorgeous dream when she was young, seventeen even!, on a beach with her first love, walking toward a twilight bonfire on a sultry summer BUUUUUZZZZZZ! She shoots out of bed, knocking her glasses off her nightstand and sending her glass of water into the wall behind the nightstand. No stretching for her. She has to find her glasses and then look for the cup, but not until she finds a towel to clean up the mess.

Another person’s morning might begin with a phone call from a child at school asking for the delivery of a long-lost assignment that is required. This request comes on the heels of a pre-dawn argument with that child about her performance in school and how her future depends on her compliance in her classes and performances. He rushes back from the drop-off, pulls his car into the parking lot, grabs his mat and dashes up the steps to the studio.

Countless other mornings take shape all over the globe, many of them without the answer of a yoga routine through the day or the lifetime of the people experiencing them.

For all of these people, however, there is a practice which awaits them. A practice which meets them where they are in that moment, on their mats. A practice which, if allowed, will show them their strength and their grace, and their limitations. A practice which, when noticed, will show them how much they’ve grown and how much wonder there is yet to experience.

And for all these people, there is a teacher who has also been there, providing she has done her own Work. Becoming a yoga teacher is not easy; to be a sincere one, you have to do a lot of self-discovery and be OK with it. This teacher may not know her students’ personal woes and frustrations and triumphs, but her allowance and realization of every mutual up and down, every moment of ennui, every doubt of what to wear, what to say, how to act and what to think –within herself– is what brings her the courage to stand before them and share her love of yoga, a vital bridge for the work of self-healing.

I stand before people three times a week, sometimes four times a week, amazed and humbled by their confidence in me and my presupposed ability to take them away from themselves for just a few moments each time we meet. I stand before them willingly and without pretense because doing otherwise is inauthentic.

Find your breath, find yourSelf

Every movement has its release: running, skating, rowing, swimming, cycling, dancing, gymnastics … they all offer an opportunity for the practitioner to express him or herself physically in a way that no other activity provides. We create teams of these exercises because others want to engage at the same time and also connect. Then we have people come and watch these teams engage.

In yoga, it’s you and your mat. Partner work exists, but a few of us shy away from all that. We indulge our teachers and form our little groups which help our classmates stretch psychically as well as physically, but we prefer the solo work.

It’s the whole of the solo work, the inhales on a lift and the exhales on a fold; or the inhales on a lift and the exhales on a twist, that creates for a room of people, a symphony of breath and movement. Even though each person is doing it by herself or for himself, the sound of your fellow yogis inhaling and exhaling on their forms at their paces and in their ways affirms the notion that while we are social creatures, we are also solitary ones.

For a yoga teacher, as new as I am, I can say that right now at this stage, I feel it’s the best time: to experience the concert of motion and breath where everyone finds themselves and ultimately loses themselves in the same room. When you lose yourself in yoga, you don’t necessarily have to go looking for yourself … yourself finds you where you are.

“Mom, my quads are really tight.”

All three of my kids have taken yoga classes with me as teacher at one point or another.

I remember when I first started teaching, kids!, I was petrified.

“They’re going to know I’m not certified,” I would insist to myself as a reason not to do it.

“They’re going to know I should have said ‘left foot forward instead of right foot forward,’ ” I would think to myself once I got started.

I look back on that now, six years ago, and I think to myself, “The crap we do to ourselves in the name of advancement is just awful.”

The kids had no idea; they just liked that it wasn’t math or science. As each week went by, it became easier and easier to do. I wasn’t in a limbo state where I felt I had to convince them to do any of it. They just did what I proposed to do because they knew yoga was good for them and they knew they should try it and also because I was “the teacher.”

So as I worked through that, I gathered the nerve to teach adults. And the conversations I have with myself still (and for likely a few sessions which will dot more months, if not years, to go) are still rife with self-doubt, nausea-inducing nervousness and at-times crippling inadequacy fears.

“Oh! I’ve done that! It gets better, I promise,” one yoga teacher friend said to me when she asked me if I’d worked myself sick with worry before a class.

“Have you thrown up yet?” asked another one.

“Almost,” I answered, relieved? that this teacher could relate to where I was coming from.

“I still have moments when I leave the studio and think to myself, ‘well, that was a career low,‘ but the people come back and somehow in the morning, it all seems better,” another one said to me.

“If you do this and it brings you nothing but anxiety, isn’t that defeating the purpose of teaching yoga?” my son asked, his brothers, and my husband nodding in accord and looking at me expectantly.

I have no answer for them other than the slowly revealing one: that each time I teach, it gets a little better. I’m perfectly happy to admit that I’m at the stage where I need I need I need positive feedback.

After dinner, the conversation continues in our bedroom.

“They keep coming back, right? No one has asked for a refund, right?” my husband asks when I pace from plank to downward facing dog to plank to upward facing dog like a Newton’s Cradle toy, just to flush out my anxiety.

“No.” I answer on my presses back to plank. Rats, shoulda answered that on the exhale press back to dog… when will I ever learn?! 

“Then just keep showing up. They will too. You’re good at this, Mol,” he sighs, exasperation and humor in his voice over the irony of it all.

Our bedroom door creaks open.

A little shape is in the crack; his silhouette formed by the light in the background.

“Mom? My quads are really tight. Those are my muscles in the front legs, yeah?” Thing 3 asks.

“Yeah, buddy. That’s where they are. Can’t you sleep?” I ask, silently hoping inside that he’ll say no and that he’ll need a cuddle and a moment here. With me.

“I can’t sleep because you won’t stop talking, but also because, yeah, my quads are tight. I think it’s from growing pains,” he says. “Can we do some yoga? To help stretch them out?”

“Sure buddy. Go get your mat.” And he turns around because it’s right outside the door and he drags it in and we do some yoga together.

He asked me to buy an app for him where we can design a bedtime routine for him. He does it, but he prefers me to teach him. I watch the routine, and give him pointers.

Thing 3 and his mat and his yoga app.

Thing 3 and his mat and his yoga app.

 

Yup. We all just want to heal a little.

Thank you.

2 responses »

  1. As I understand it, there are many forms of yoga including Bhakti yoga, Karma yoga, and Jnana yoga. Hatha yoga which seems to be the most popular form in the West, works well for many people especially when some degree of mindfulness is brought to it. However, as my teachers have shared with me, mindfulness can be practiced without the need for yoga poses. If Hatha yoga is your path and it increases your concentration, equanimity, and sensory clarity great. Who can argue with success.

    • Hi Wayne! Yes, many forms of yoga are out there, and as you suggest, not all of them are movement oriented.

      Yoga is the philosophy, “asana” is the motion, the pose. I don’t get into that distinction here, yet, because it’s largely a likely western audience I reach. I suppose I could do that.

      Hatha is my focus; motion is my instrument. Mindfulness is my goal. Not everyone has that goal initially, it just happens if you get out of your own way. Hatha “speaks” to the west, possibly, because we are so competitive and hell-bent on work ethic. -m

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