Rowboats, yoga, meditation, and incubators (of a certain kind)

Something that has always mystified me about yoga are its touted “transformative effects”. I have read about them in yoga teacher blogs, heard about them in yoga class, and have had people tell me that “yoga changed their life.” But I don’t relate. I love yoga, and it’s helped me be more in my body and has helped me slow down my speed-demon mind, but I have not been transformed or deeply changed by yoga. After attending a yoga class with my boyfriend last night, I asked him about this on the drive home.

treeny“I don’t get it,” I said. “I always hear yoga teachers talk about how yoga magically puts you more in touch with yourself, helps you know yourself more deeply, but how exactly can yoga do that? How can anyone make such a claim? How come I have never experienced these epiphanies in yoga class?” (Minus one mind-blowing savasana, but anyway). He suggested that it has to do with the possibility that many people live their lives oriented to their outside world, rather than their internal one. Yoga, being quiet, methodical, and mindful, helps many people create the space and time for going inward, and thus allows them to be more deeply in touch with themselves, even the parts they’ve buried deeply. His hypothesis made sense. It also made me re-think a few things about my own “yogic journey”.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been acutely aware of my thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. This is not to say I’m aware of all aspects of myself, but there’s an inner dialog, and I’ve long been trying to figure myself out, even (especially?) the dark parts. I’ve journaled in great detail since the age of eight. I’ve examined my tendencies, my mistakes, my fears, and my ideas. I’ve always been “inwardly-oriented”. And here comes my yoga teacher training in 2014, with the selling point being “the path of mindfulness is one of no return.”

It was a daunting slogan, and I perhaps wondered if I’d been deceiving myself all long; maybe I wasn’t mindful at all! Maybe I had NO CLUE what my emotions, thoughts, and impulses were all about! The conclusion I came to was that I must go deeper. And so I did. I went so deep, in fact, I think I turned myself inside out, and then fastened a big, fancy knot out of the whole ordeal, and tried to call it “self-discovery”. It was really just an existential disaster, plus OCD.

P1050064Since my teacher training, I’ve continued to figure myself, my life, and the world out. But never on the yoga mat, and never, I don’t think, as a direct result of yoga. I’m usually on a walk, or chatting with a friend, or journaling, or doing any random banal activity when “aha!” it comes to me. Clarity, understanding. It is actually most often the result of getting OUTSIDE of myself, my head, the arrival of understanding. One of the greatest “epiphanies” of my life came to me while I was sitting at a little corner bakery in Medellín, Colombia, admiring the light falling through the palm fronds overhead, the sounds of the tropical birds and the nearby stream gushing down the hillside to my left. It was a moment that combined deep understanding with real struggle; it wasn’t an easy time in my life, at all.

Yoga for me, I think, will always be a more physical and mental practice. Bordering on spiritual, perhaps, but never the glorious experience it is for some. This is why I stopped teaching yoga. Whatever magic there is that exists out there, I am most in touch with it when I’m outside listening to the birds and other creatures, when I’m near water, when I’m traveling, when I’m writing or creating, when I’m with people I love, when I’m reading a great book, when I’m racing or competing athletically (sadly, though, this seems to be a thing of the past), when I’m lying in bed on Saturday mornings with my cup of coffee watching the sun filter in through my gauzy pink curtains, when I’m near horses, when I read a fantastic poem, when I’m riding my bike, when I’m dancing sometimes, when I’m driving on certain days or on certain roads, when I hear a beautiful song, when I see a beautiful painting, when I sit and watch people who are truly happy, when I admire the stars. The list is pretty endless. And yoga is on it, but not every time. And I’m more grateful for its ability to simply help me slow down in my mind, and in my body. For its grounding effect rather than its awakening effect. Of course–it’s entirely possible that someday I will change my mind. Maybe I’ll re-read the sutras with a different perspective, maybe I”ll go to India and see something that changes me. I can’t possibly know now what I’ll feel like in the future. Anyway.

These reflections remind me of the juncture I am at: realizing there is never just one way, and how that affects my whole approach to life. Because I’ve always wanted to help make the world a better place. And I’ve always been a one-way kind of girl. At first, it would be by making art. Then, it would be through teaching it. Then, when I realized that wasn’t working, I found yoga. Yoga could save the world! But then I saw the fallacy in that idea, too. Because it’s different for everyone. Some people find that sense of aliveness, spirit, and oneness in yoga, others find it in meditation, some in art or music or writing, some in brewing beer, some in caring for animals, others in playing a sport; the list is again, endless. And how people find and cultivate their sense of quiet and understanding (of themselves, others, the world) is also up to them. They might access it through fishing, or hiking, or yoga, painting, anything. In the end, no one thing can save the world or any person. Except maybe more love, more compassion, more tolerance and understanding. And more of any of these things requires adopting the understanding that there is no one way, that no way is superior, that no thing will save the world, or anyone in it. If it only it WERE that simple! I still want to figure out how to contribute to the world, but in a more encompassing, open, and active (as in, not just ideas I think and talk about) way. I’ll get there. But it will take time, and diligence.

It’s really quite funny how I felt more spiritually “refreshed” after reading “The Boys in the Boat” (READ IT!) than I did after any spiritual book or yoga text. And I reflected more earnestly on myself and my life than I typically do while reading any kind of self-help book. That book was another huge reminder to me that there is NO one way, and that anything can be deeply spiritual, meaningful, or life-changing. It does not have to be yoga or meditation. I recalled some of my own memories in crew shells, and how alive and how penetrated by beauty and awe I felt while racing down rivers and lakes, in unison with seven other women, toward a common goal and destination. The book also, quite strangely, helped me feel more acceptance for the parts of myself that aren’t spiritually sound; my anger, my fears and worries, my critical and oftentimes oppositional nature, my hypersensitivity, my penchant for melodrama. I was allowed to see these qualities as mirrors of their opposites, also within me, and I was also capable of simply seeing them as they are: parts of a whole. No one is all good, and that’s OK.

It was actually after finishing “The Boys in the Boat” yesterday evening that all of these thoughts and feelings and ideas started to weave themselves together. I was leaving my house to drive over to my boyfriend’s house so we could go to that yoga class together. When I walked outside, the sky was blue, dotted with clouds, the sun was hanging low overhead, casting long shadows across the pavement–and that was when I realized: The sky was the same shade of blue when these men were alive, when they rowed their famed boat. The sun looked the same, the grass rose out of the earth in exactly the same way, leaves hung and blew from their branches no differently than they do now. Those men, now all passed away, were here, on this same, sweet planet, breathing the same sweet air as me; they were born, they lived, and they died. Just like me, like everyone who is here, now. They were all here, they all really rowed in the Olympics in 1936, and now they’re all gone. My life will follow the same trajectory, (minus the Olympics, of course!). I thought about all they accomplished in their lives, and how intentional their rowing practice was, and I thought about how I need to stop wasting so much time. That, even if I don’t have a clear plan, I need to do more of the things that give me a sense of joy or purpose until my “plan” materializes. I need to do more of the things that make me feel alive. All this from a book about nine boys, those around them, and the sport of rowing.

Maybe because, unlike self-help and spiritual books that  TELL you how, why, and what for, novels show you, novels let you experience a story for yourself, and take from it what you will.

There is no one way.

I cannot tell you how liberating this is for me to realize.

[And, on a final note, in order for the words for this post to arrange themselves in my mind, I had to do a few “mindless” things. I call these kinds of activities my “incubator”. I came home from school, crawled into bed, and watched a crime show, and then a sitcom. I browsed the internet and read a few articles. Then I got up and got dressed to go outside, walked to the cafe down the street to buy a chai latte, and then wandered around for 30 minutes, taking in the sights and sounds, and let my mind go where it needed to go. About halfway through the walk, I figured out where I wanted to start, and what I wanted to say.]

And now it’s time to do the dishes, change the cat litter, take out the trash, and then maybe, if there’s time, there will be a little bit of yoga.

Love, Katie

PS: It’s a craptastic photo, but in honor of my brief, but very cherished rowing career (just over one year), here’s a photo from a race where my boat kicked ass and came in first place from behind 🙂 I’m the second rower from the stern, just behind our oh-so-serenely-faced stroke:


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