Throughout my tumultuous twenties, yoga kept me sane. I didn't practice much. It wasn't a big part of my life. But somehow the reassuring rhythm of those weekly classes, coupled with the consistent and reliable presence of my teacher at the time, Frances Houlahan, provided a framework for me that was missing elsewhere.
It wasn't that my life lacked routine. I had plenty of that in a succession of 9 to 5 jobs that bored me to tears! So it wasn't simply the regularity of class or practice that brought solace. Instead, what yoga offered was a delicious sense of potential, a feeling that other ways of being could be possible. By coming to my breath and attending to the movement of my body in any given moment, I was able to 'be with' myself in a way that broke my usual pattern of self doubt, self criticism and self flagellation. At first, I got a little caught up in wanting to 'do' yoga well, to be able to touch my toes easily or curve my back beautifully. But as my struggle with life's challenges grew more pressurized and intense, I realized that the gifts of uttanasana (standing forward bend) or bhujangasana (cobra pose), for example, didn't just lie in accomplishing a good stretch, but in making the journey from inner to outer reality with grace and self acceptance.
Best of all, yoga gave me space. Space to explore who I really was and what I really wanted. By the time I added a regular meditation practice to my daily routine, things started to change significantly. Spending time in quiet contemplation was the most extraordinary gift, bringing with it increased discernment and discrimination. Slowly but surely I was becoming less 'reactive' and more 'responsive' to the situations I found myself in, thus better able to make choices that were self supporting.
What inspires me so much about yoga is that, hiding behind the scientifically proven benefits to physical health, are subtle lessons about how to engage with life in an awakened and soulful manner. For instance, it is helpful to learn that when we are suddenly thrown off balance (as when asked to perform vrksanasna / tree pose), it is useful to accept support. Practicing this posture with a partner or against the wall is very different to exploring it alone. If we find ourselves resistant to receiving support in yoga class, is this indicative of our patterns in the wider world? And if so, might it be possible to soften in this regard? Similarly, how we deal with the transition between postures in a sequence can tell us a lot about ourselves. Do we lose confidence in the face of an unexpected challenge? Are we more comfortable in closed positions than open ones? Do we prefer fast-paced flows to slower, more mindful sequences? And how can we rebalance and hold ourselves steady in light of these observations? Not just in class, but in all things …?
No matter how hard we try to resist, life is a constant process of change. Every scenario we engage in will be somewhere on the continuum of beginning and ending, including the wider arc of our personal life cycle. We move from night to day, season to season, breath to breath in a constant circular flow of release and renewal. Yet somewhere along the lines, we have bought into the notion that everything (especially those things we are attached to) should stay the same. So when we experience sudden death, whether of a loved one, a relationship, a profession, or a self-identity, we are lost. Yoga offers not only the understanding that life is ever-changing, but the tools to help deal with that oftentimes disorientating fact.
In my twenties, when I was confused and discouraged by the vicissitudes of life, yoga
was the container that held me as I grew and developed. It gave me a spiritual and philosophical frame of reference in which to contextualize my overwhelming experiences. It showed me how to quieten heart and mind, to find calm even amidst chaos. I learnt when it was appropriate to control, and when it was good to let go. I understood my boundaries, both physical and emotional. I knew what would keep me healthy and what would not. And best of all, over the years, I acquired a comprehensive tool box of techniques to ease pretty much all of the challenges I face, large or small.
Now in my mid forties, I can look back and see how valuable yoga has been in helping me negotiate change. It has seen me through bereavements, relationship breakdowns, significant health issues, career detours and countless house moves. It has been the still point of my ever-turning world, the compassionate embrace, the exhale. Although a vastly complex and multi-faceted discipline, yoga is, in essence, simple. It invites us to come home to ourselves by being with body and breath. It invites us to be free. In the words of ancient Roman mystic Marcus Aurelius, “he who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe”. Yoga, blessedly, shows us the way.
First published in 2015 to promote a series of self care workshops