At the beginning of every yoga class, I close my eyes for the first time. Most often, the day has been busy and this is the first time I haven’t been in motion since I woke up. With my eyes closed I listen to my teacher setting the tone for the class, and then I hear only silence. She has invited me into an hour when only the present matters.
I go kicking and screaming.
By nature, I’m a pretty Type A person. I’m never far away from my sectioned to-do list, written on a large yellow pad. I have spreadsheets coming out my ears, keeping track of everything in my life. I don’t like to waste time, and it’s hard for me to rest or practice self-care. I’m not a natural candidate for yoga, and perhaps that’s why I need it so much.
Yoga scared me for a long time, partly because of people I knew who whispered about Buddhist roots ready to curl around my fragile Christian faith and choke it off completely. But for me, the bigger challenge was learning to live in my body and mind in real time. To listen. To ask the thoughts of my day to leave, and to check in with all my edges, asking myself what I needed and what I needed to let go. It seemed excessive to spend so much time combing through my thoughts, and then checking in with each part of my body. In reality, doing so takes only five, maybe ten minutes. It can, however, feel like eternity.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that I have this same difficulty with prayer. One of my favorite ways to pray is while walking or driving. I like to feel as though I’m accomplishing something, and prayer doesn’t always feel like enough. If I’m supposed to be praying without ceasing, then it’s kind of like breathing, I often think. I can’t check breathing (or praying) off my to-do list.
Yoga is all about breath, and arguably, about prayer. Like breathing, prayer becomes more effective when I focus on it. Slowly, it becomes less shallow, bringing more nourishment to my blood and internal organs. Sometimes I think about a quote by David Carradine: “If you cannot be a poet, be the poem.” I think this works for prayer and yoga as well. I can be the pose and the prayer even when I don’t feel that I’m doing either well.
I concentrate on my breath when my yoga teacher reminds the class. All too often, I realize I’ve been holding it in. A deep inhale works wonders for my brain, and infiltrates my being with calm. Sometimes, as I try to breathe in and out, counting five, or maybe seven, seconds for each half of breath, I think about God breathing into Adam to animate him, and about the Spirit as wind and breath animating us all.
One of my classes is full of students; the instructor is a favorite. With rarely more than a foot of space between mats, I have to look before I extend an arm or leg. It’s so tempting to look around, when we’re supposed to be in Cosmic Dancer Pose, to see how others are doing. In every class, and with every instructor, I hear, “What happens on your mat is all that matters.” Like life, and faith, yoga isn’t a competitive sport. Some days my knees are creaky or my wrists are sore. Other days find me sinking into Child’s Pose while everyone else is attempting a pose slightly more active. I’m not used to thinking only of my needs, paying attention only to my body and mind. I’m not used to giving myself permission to rest, slow down, and listen. I’m finding out, slowly, that it’s easier to hear important things here, messages from myself, words from God. I’m also finding that my back hurts less and I’m less likely to tweak a hip.
In life, it’s easy for me to forget that everyone is good at different things and that no one is good at anything all the time. I hate the idea of failing, or falling over. But the beauty of yoga is that it is so broad. I’m not sure I know anyone who is good at everything it encompasses. Even so, some days I’m tighter or struggle more with balance. It’s easy to compare myself with other people, but it’s also a temptation to compare myself with a stronger, more toned version of myself (or my neighbor, wearing stylish workout clothing). That girl would never falter during Tree Pose.
But when I do falter, or my legs shake, my teachers remind me I am building strength. Falling, quaking, and finding my edges are not wastes of time. They are the building blocks of growth. Like other such paths, they are seldom linear. I do not get better at yoga day by day any more than I get better at faith. But I keep showing up to my mat, and to my life. I practice, because that is what everything in life is.
Occasionally, I will get frustrated with my progress. I’ll ignore the calm, reasonable voices of my teachers, who tell me not to stretch past gentle discomfort. In the days after those decisions, my body is stiff and sore. Instead of moving forward, I have set myself back. Just as I can’t balance perfectly on command, I also can’t force flexibility or a graceful Chaturanga.
At the end of class, we rest for a few minutes. By then, I’ve almost always managed to escape my thoughts. An hour of paying attention to my breathing and the movements I’m making has done its work. I rest unencumbered.
Just before we leave class, we bow with our eyes closed, and say “Namaste” to each other, out loud. This word means “The Divine in me sees and recognizes the Divine in you,” and each time I hear it, I try to accept the reminder to be on the lookout for God, beginning right there in my yoga class. Traces of God are everywhere, inside everyone I encounter, inside me. I want to catch glimpses of them as they go by.