The road back to yoga


Life is full of surprises. So many times the things I had sworn off, or not at all planned for, come to me in shiny, gift-wrapped packages; here you go, KD! You’re welcome. Do enjoy! So often what I plan for or desire squeals out of my grasping hands and evades me, much to my relentless despair. I stand pointing at the long-shut door, refusing to turn and see what has been opened for me, what glimmering packages lay at my feet.

Yoga was such a thing. Both the object that I desired so ardently that it burned up before my eyes, and the thing that flew in on special delivery, open and available for the taking, now, of course, when I no longer desire it. Whether or not I “practice yoga” is of little importance to me. What matters is how I live, how I love, how I take care of my body, the world, my heart, and the people I love; I’m less obsessed with the goal. It is funny, though, one of the principle concepts of yoga is non-attachment, or aparigraha, which urges practitioners to focus not on the result, but the actions themselves. I can’t even count how many times I read about this, and failed to see my clenched fist at my side, holding so tightly what I thought I wanted, needed, even.

But the truth is, my yoga teacher training kind of un-did me. I was a part of the program during a particularly low time in my life, and I was at the weakest I’d been, I think, since I was a neurotic nine-year-old obsessing over the possible deaths of my parents. It doesn’t need to be discussed deeply, but my program was rather steeped in dogma, and I lacked the willpower and sense of self to argue it. Instead, I submitted. I must do this, or I am not worthy of being a yogi. That is not yoga. Only this is. I cannot take some and leave others and still call it yoga. All or nothing, baby! 

And so for a while, I tried to take all… but it became an exhausting charade. When I was teaching, I did not feel like myself. I felt like I was regurgitating facts I’d been told. I didn’t embody my teachings, I lacked passion (which is very un-KD like). So I quit, taking nothing. Between March and October of this year, I think I practiced yoga maybe three times. I certainly didn’t read any books about it. I regretted spilling so much money into a training program. Another stupid-KD-impulse! Good lord.

Recently, though, remnants of my more-confident self are simmering, bubbling to the surface. I am remembering that I can disagree with someone without being wrong or bad. I can have different beliefs, and that is OK. An expert can be wrong. Authors and teachers can be wrong. None of this is hard fact anyway, much of it is up for interpretation. Why not interpret it for myself? Learn and feel as I go?

In coming back to yoga, I realize a few things: I have still have body-images issues. Pretending I don’t have them doesn’t mean they’re not there. And: I need to take care of my body, as well as my mind and spirit. That means devoting time to not only meditation, reflection, and yoga, but also to physical fitness. One “pearl of wisdom” barked repeatedly during my trainings was that exercising was bad for you. Total madness. An ego game at best. All you need is yoga. Maybe for some. But I know that I feel better about my body, and myself as a whole, when I feel strong, when my lungs and heart can keep up with hard work and not call for help. Of course, physical fitness can be mad ego pursuit… but so can yoga. So can anything. I run and swim and bike at the YMCA now, and I enjoy it. I don’t hear that scolding voice in my head. Actually, I am really coming to love my neighborhood YMCA. The people who work there are so kind, I’ve even seen a few of my students while running and swimming, and it’s a small, intimate setting, I’m even getting to know some of the regulars. At home, I’m doing a little weight training and dancing when I’m not doing yoga.

It’s different for everyone, but for me, yoga is sometimes about fitness, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s about letting myself feel difficult emotions, sometimes it’s about unwinding after a stressful day, or feeling into some part of myself. It is, however, always about honoring this body I was given so that I could walk this delicious earth, and to honor the mind and emotions that came with it. It is a package deal; we don’t actually get to choose who we are, but we do get to choose who we become; what we do with our strengths and weaknesses, how we use them to serve ourselves, our loved ones, our community, and the world at large. And it is also always a reminder to take good care of this body, this mind, these emotions; I do not get replacements. This is it. And I want to be wild and free into old age.

I’ve been having kind of a difficult time lately with sadness, fear, uncertainty, and grief. There are moments when I look at myself and my life and wish desperately to be someone else. That girl with the perfect body. That woman who is so affable and easy and cool. That cute and quirky girl with the cute husband and baby. That woman who seems so care-free, so sexy, so fun. I bet she never flies off the handle, or cries so hard she can’t breathe, or goes into rages over minutia or drives anyone insane, I bet she has more confidence than me, she could handle this stuff better, no wonder she looks so happy… But I think we all get caught up in that, to a degree. And when I notice myself getting caught up in the wish to be somebody else with a supposedly more pleasant life, I pause and force myself to address the wish realistically: If given the opportunity, would I really trade my body, mind, and emotions for that of another? The answer is always no; no matter how beautiful, calm, in-love, or fun someone else may appear in the moment, I don’t actually wish to be them instead of myself. I’m learning, slowly, not just to accept myself, but love myself, even the dark or scary parts–it is those parts of us, I am learning, that are ironically most capable of shedding light on our souls and in our lives.

Tonight, in effort to understand why I am so extreme in my feelings, I googled “emotional intensity”, hoping to find some methods or practices I could use when I feel myself at the end of a flexed rubber band, ready to shoot into outer space–in joy, fear, sorrow, excitement, I don’t play favorites. Instead of finding “how-to” type articles, I found two pearls, polished and waiting silently inside of their sturdy oyster shells. Here are the defining phrases from each of the articles I read:

“Emotional intensity is not a matter of feeling more than other people, but a different way of experiencing the world: vivid, absorbing, penetrating, encompassing, complex, commanding – a way of being quiveringly alive.”

“Despite the conflicts and afflictions that intensity seems to bring, the emotionally intense thrive on the richness of their feelings. Research to be reported in the Journal of Research in Personality shows that, in spite of their sufferings, emotionally intense people report as great a sense of well-being and contentment as do those whose lives lack such turmoil.”

Ahhhhhhh! The only words I could conjure when reading these were “sweet” and “relief”. “Whose lives lack such turmoil” means I am not alone, and even better, I’m not some pathetic fuck-up who can’t get it right. While I can’t live at the whim of my emotions and ride the roller coaster free-for-all style, I can accept that “such turmoil” is the price I pay for the ability to feel ‘quiveringly’ alive. We all have our gifts, and they’re usually the light side of a very two-faced coin. And, instead of dwelling on others’ apparent superiority, I can work on strengthening my strengths–including my ability to feel intensely–and also strengthen my weaknesses. I don’t want to get dragged on the roller coaster again and again and again until I vomit profusely. I do want to be able to get off, I want to cultivate that choice. I can also learn to find my center instead of always falling over the edge, and I can learn to steady myself, comfort myself even, when in the deep, dark, depths of seemingly-endless-despair at the craggy ocean floor.

treenyIn this vein, yoga and meditation need not change me, nor alter my demons, rather, they can help me use them to my advantage, to better understand them so they do not control me. I do not have to be a serene, unperturbed, perfectly balanced woman to be “healthy” or “good” or “yogic”. But I can use my gifts more efficiently, and be, at the very least, less disturbed by my shadowy sides. There are many ways to be a practitioner of yoga, just as there are many ways to be a human being–and no matter how vastly diverse we might all be, there still exists innumerable common threads. But we needn’t define them right now; let’s just trust that they are there.

“Yoga is the ability to direct and focus mental activity,” says Sutra 1.2. I think that is something we can all benefit from, whatever gifts were bestowed upon us, whatever problems we might have, and whether or not we practice yoga in the traditional sense. It is certainly a way to develop the gifts we were given, accept and tame the little shadows and weaknesses that came along in the package, and cultivate new strengths, abilities, understanding, and compassion along the way.

Thanks, yoga, for making me hate you for a little while. It was the only way, in the end, to really love you, to really know what you mean to me, and to be OK with that.

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