Thursday, February 7, 2013

What has yoga done for you?

Saturday was a rare day off: no teaching, no asana practice, no work. W and I took a road trip to my old city to hike my favorite trail, eat ethnic food, and get lost in the buzzing energy of a place that houses so many people from so many different parts of the world in its many disparate neighborhoods. In the car ride over, the conversation turned to yoga and practice, as it often does with us, and I brought up what David Garrigues has been talking about recently, that in order to stick with the demanding and difficult practice of ashtanga (he specifically was talking about the third series, though, man, I could say the same about first or second) you need to have a love of asana. That in order to progress, you have to have a deep love for it.

We tossed this idea around a bit; debated the nature of progress in practice. Does it mean putting your leg behind your head? Do we need to progress? What does progress mean? The answers were no, yes, and, the willingness to look at your shit; at least that's what we agreed on that day. This brought us to the necessity of love. What about those days when you really hate it, the days that are hard, the days when everything aches? Do we honestly love it? Or do we do it because it's good for us, keeps us healthy and fit, clears the mind, shows us what we're capable of? I think we concluded that much like  a relationship, it is precisely in those moments when you want nothing to do with the practice, those moments when you want to walk away, it's the understanding that underneath the frustration and anger, there is love, big love, that keeps you from throwing it all away. It's the same love that brings you back to the mat. It's the same love that makes you create space in your life for the practice. It's the same love that feeds you so you can love others in your life. It's the love that makes you a better person.

This led to him asking me if I could count the ways in which Yoga has made me a better person, ways in which I have made progress. He noted that we throw these big pronouncements around often, but could we really be specific? I think he was asking for a measureable change, a collection of data points, a before and after photograph of my soul.

I will be honest, this kind of transparency in a public space is difficult for me. But I feel that as a teacher, it may be useful to share a few of the many different ways that I have used Yoga to make shifts in my life, in my personality, in my tendencies, and in how I relate to myself and others. It feels naked to do this, but I hope it will also serve as a trigger for someone out there to open to the possibility of this practice as something beyond the physical body. It feels strange, when we are new to yoga and struggling in the body, to fathom how it does anything beyond making us strong and flexible. It feels incomprehensible when we are in the flow of a difficult posture or sequence to understand how this intensely physical practice could have the potential to makes us better people. Here's what I've come up with so far...

Yoga has taught me discernment. When I first started practicing, I would catch glimpses of a very calm, very still, joyful place inside. This was a state of mind that was rare for me at the time: I was borne into chaos and only knew my resistance to it. I would go home, to my then husband, and I would feel the calm inside juxtaposed against the anxiety inherent in our relationship. It took recognizing that I had the capacity inside myself for peace, and that I actually quite liked being calm, that led me to leave a marriage that was not right for me. The freedom and sense of empowerment that leaving provided me with is something that has allowed me to become a fuller human being now.

Yoga has taught me patience. I can't push and have my way, though I still try at times. Just because I think I'm ready, it doesn't mean that I am. All I can do is give my best in the moment, show up, and whether it goes the way I'd like for it to go or not, is irrelevant. There is such freedom in that...It also goes for  my relationship with others: just because I think I know what's good for them, it doesn't mean that they are going to, or, more importantly, should do it.

Yoga has taught me acceptance and empathy. It has taught me to not assume anything about anyone.  Teaching yoga has taught me to see everyone, especially those who drive me crazy, with lots of compassion and love. It is rarely about me, even when they snap at me in the moment. I can't tell you how many students have confided in me after a practice about something devastating that is going on in their lives. You just never know what is going on in people's lives. If they make it on their mat, all you can do is love them.

Yoga has taught me my mind's fantastic ability to project. Just like my body will find any way it can to escape a deep opening, my mind will do the same. I have projected love, anger, hatred, envy, judgement, lust, boredom, rejection,you name it onto teachers and fellow practitioners. At some point, I started noticing that all of those feelings were about myself. If I thought a teacher was incompetent, it was because I was afraid that I was incompetent, and since we're being naked here, this is one of my biggest fears. If I felt dizzy with love, it was my own need and desire to be loved. Examining these states of mind went a long way into helping me reframe situations that come up constantly in relationships. Do I feel particularly critical of my partner today? What is that about? We have an uncanny ability to halt progress, to turn things around, to preserve the status quo. Yoga has taught me to constantly challenge the status quo. Yes, it can be exhausting at times, but so well-worth the effort.

Yoga has forced me to examine my relationship to stability. For a big chunk of my life as a yogi, stability in postures has been the hardest piece. I've forever been the wobbly girl. Not surprisingly, the driving force in my relationships has always been the need for stability, for routine, for a solid ground.  Learning how to stabilize myself in my own body has been a long and painful process. Building strength can often feel like a dead end, like sisyphus rolling his rock up the mountain endlessly. Turns out there is a lot we can learn about ourselves when we do work that is not very fun. Or easy. We ask ourselves big questions like why am I doing this? And for whom? And to what end? And what is this really about? What is this stability that I so crave, to the point of rushing uncooked relationships, really about, and what is the work I need to do on myself to build the strength to feel stable regardless of who I'm with or where I live? And in this way, falling out of tree pose one day can lead to deep inner realizations three years later.

Perhaps the biggest lesson that yoga has taught me has been about my relationship to love and punishment. As much as I intellectually know that yoga is not about achievement, I routinely find ways to punish myself when I don't meet my own standards. Feeling loved and being punished have a twisted, gnarly old root inside me; a root that goes back to an early childhood of strict, disciplinarian teachers and parents whom I loved and was terrified of at once; authority figures who set the rules and the standards, and were ready with the punishments if I did not meet their high standards. So it's no surprise that in my practice, I have picked up the pattern that was set early in my life when it came to learning and being in the world. How do I punish myself, you ask? No, I don't hurt myself in the postures, though pushing too hard is a tendency of mine (see the part about patience). The punishment I tend to dole out to myself these days takes the form of disparaging thoughts about myself, the kind that spread and linger like terrible, toxic fumes for days. So what am I to do? These days my practice is to identify the triggers that start this pattern, the first few thought bubbles that surface, the 'if I don't practice for two hours today then I am not a good person' nonsense that my mind creates, and decide consciously to not go down that path. I won't lie to you. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But that's just it: I'm not sure I would've even connected the dots were it not for the consistent practice that brought me face to face with my inner self.

The way I see it, every time we step into our practice space, we have the opportunity to make a connection with our deeper self. Every day is not going to be an earth shattering opening into the depths of our psyche, but the cumulative effect can add to something quite profound, and though we may never become perfect saints, the practice brings us as close to the best version of ourselves. Or so I hope.