Twenty one years ago I said “yes” to an invitation to practice yoga on the beach in celebration of Earth Day. I had never taken a yoga class before and did not know what to expect.
Out of desperation, I showed up to give yoga a few hours of my Saturday morning to reveal to me its secrets. I was hopeful and hopeless. I was a crazy-busy first year middle school teacher struggling to make a difference in the lives of kids in the inner city of East Los Angeles. I was stressed out, drank too much, and when I got tired, I pushed harder.
By the end of my first yoga class, something completely unexpected happened, something I thought I had forgotten I ever knew how to do . . . I relaxed, I let go, the bubble of ‘me’ popped open into a symphony of ‘we.’ I felt a kinship with the dolphins dancing in the waves, the sunlight shimmering on the endless, eternal surface of the ocean. I felt at home in my body and at home in this world and at home in the cosmos. As if I belonged again to creation.
Although so many gifts were revealed during that first yoga practice, many others, would be slowly titrated into my experience, and change me in ways I thankfully never recovered from.
It’s not a One Night Stand – The Value of Committed Practice
The first life changing thing I learned from my yoga practice is, that like any good relationship, it’s not just a one time experience, it’s an ongoing life-long practice that continues to reveal its gifts by getting on the mat over and over again. As one of my first teachers, Pattabhi Jois said, “yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.” The gifts of the yoga practice emerge from the practice itself. Practicing when I’m stressed out and calmly centered, practicing when I’m tightly tense and fluidly open — my commitment is to the value of the practice itself. The gifts don’t just come from “thinking about” yoga, they come from a willingness and courage to step out onto the yoga mat and “live from” the experience of yoga over and over again. There is no sense of stepping into the same river twice, each practice has its own nuances of experience, quality of the breath, tone of the body, and relationship to spirit, waiting to be discovered through direct immediate experience.
When Trying Harder Stops Working – The Gift of Surrender
My best (and only) strategy for life prior to yoga was, “if it’s not working, try harder.” I was tenacious, determined, and slowly becoming chronically exhausted from my addiction to struggle.
Then, I met a teacher, who introduced me to Grace (Anugraha). According to Yogapedia, “Grace is defined as elegance and beauty of movement . . . In the yoga tradition, grace implies surrender and devotion.”
Grace and surrender are exemplified in the way the Chilean poet, Pablo Nerude, describes his first encounter with writing poetry:
I don’t know where it came from . . .
But from the street I was summoned . . .
It touched me
Grace was a lot like that, “it touched” me like a sweet caress, inviting me to surrender into the arms of a sweet, loving, connection with Spirit, and from that place I found myself carried elegantly and beautifully into yoga poses in partnership with a larger energy.
Injury as My Greatest Teacher – Learning to Listen to my Body
There was also a way in which Grace grabbed me and threw me to the ground, pinned me down in pain, and opened me to the secret messages the body had been trying to tell me, but I hadn’t known how to listen.
Pain was my practice partner in yoga for almost a decade. It wasn’t just one injury, but a slew of serial injuries, one after the other. First it was my wrist, neck, shoulder, then my hip, then my back, screaming to me for attention. I was deaf in some way to the quiet whispers of my body, I wasn’t yet attuned to the calls for attention, love and kindness. I had grown up a gymnast telling my body to do.
Injury taught me how to listen to my body — to hear the call of pain as a sign that I was out of alignment. I learned to ask my body, “what do you need?” And I learned how to give my body the nourishment, love and care it deserved.
In a Life that’s Speeding Up — The Value of Slowing Down
The mind loves to go fast. It’s racing into the next moment, hoping it will be better than this moment. When I’m living in my mind, I feel like a hamster in a wheel, rushing endlessly to get somewhere, anywhere but here.
In yoga practice I drop down out of my mind and into my body — where I learn to savor this very moment and let it unfold seamlessly into the next now moment. Entranced by the call to fully receive this inhale – slow, whispery, growing fullness, . . . and completely release this exhale – gently falling, downward, into emptiness. I realized that by going fast I was missing so much of the beauty of my practice — the sensations, the aliveness, the peace.
Spending one hour doing yoga seems to give me more time in my day rather than less. I’m moving in a slower, more embodied way, more present in each unfolding moment and able to receive more of life. I hear the chirping of the birds, I see the look in my student’s eyes, and I feel the crisp fall breeze blowing on my face.
In the embrace of the eternal now, I can move quickly, but not with the frenetic need to get “there.” Instead, it’s a deeper enjoyment of this moment, inviting me to slow down and receive the full gift of now.
Yoga is not just something you do on your mat – It’s a way of Being
When I started yoga I lived two separate lives. The stress and struggle of everyday life in the world and the peace and well-being of my yoga life on my mat – a type of spirit and matter split.
As my practice evolved over the past twenty years, I discovered yoga to be a practice of ever deepening intimacy. Intimacy and connection within myself – body, mind and spirt – but also deepening intimacy with the natural world, with my friends and family, with the challenges our world faces, and with my own human limitations, and divine expansiveness.
Yoga has gone from being an on the mat only practice, and now it’s something I live out into every moment of life, it’s a way of Being fully engaged and present for life.
The separations of spirit and matter, dissolved into a woven tapestry of wholeness revealed when I slow down, surrender, listen, and make everyday life my practice mat. And through it all my on the mat yoga practice is still a cherished and beautiful part of my life — the swoosh of my breath, the grip of my hands, the flow of my body as it jumps through, rolls, back, and relaxes out into infinity.
I am so grateful for the practice of yoga, just like I was that very first day.