The first time I took a yoga class, I was in high school. The local college offered a few different fitness classes, and being the brave soul that I am, I ventured out of my comfort zone on a slow Saturday morning to try the 60-minute hatha session. Assuming “hatha” was synonymous with “stretching,” I braced myself for an hour of boredom. How hard could it be?
The room was full of older folk ranging from their early 40s to late 60s—including the instructor—plus one or two teenage girls who looked just as clueless as I felt. But we each picked up a mat and marked our spot on the hardwood floor, mine somewhere near the back left corner closest to the door. Instructed to sit up tall and close our eyes, we began with guided breathing and meditation.
In and out, we breathed. Deep cleansing breaths—whatever that meant. Starting to feel a little lightheaded, I opened my eyes to peek at the clock. Only 56 minutes to go.
By the end of the hour, after flowing through vinyasa more times than I could count, I was drenched in sweat and struggling to find my zen. In our last downward dog—a “resting” pose that made my arms feel like noodles—of the day, I made up my mind that yoga wasn’t for me. It was back to the elliptical for this chick, I thought, collapsing once and for all into corpse pose.
It wasn’t until years later, after graduating from college, that I finally returned to the mat. I was living by myself for the first time ever, working a 7-to-5 desk job, and didn’t much care that I was in the worst shape of my life. While my boyfriend/exercise buddy (who is now my husband) succeeded in getting me off my butt and to the gym most days, those 30-minute dates with the treadmill were uninspiring at best. My head seemed to always get in the way.
Worries and uncertainties about my future would cloud my thoughts and leave me feeling less motivated than the day before. I knew that this looming, big-picture kind of stress was holding me back from realizing my potential in every aspect of my life, and I settled on simply going through the motions. The truth was, I needed a big push. A reset button. Determined to give
something anything else a try, I bought a Groupon for a month’s worth of unlimited yoga at a local studio.
There’s a kind of mantra within the yoga community I’m a part of, an overall intention of sorts. Leave it all on the mat. At one point, I thought it meant giving your practice your all, and for some people, it may. But what I leave on my mat goes way beyond sweat and tears. (In case you’re wondering, I have cried on my yoga mat before.)
I now leave the things that eat away at me, the things holding me back. The insulting comments posted anonymously on my blog, the petty argument I accidentally started with a loved one, the job applications I sent out that never got a response, my own rigid definition of success.
It’s a choice, each and every time I step onto my mat. Hold on or let go.
I used to be someone who held on for dear life. Pose after pose, I’d clench my teeth and bear the discomfort, forcing myself to go a little deeper and stay in it a little longer. Stealing outward glances to weigh my strength against my neighbor’s. I would walk out of the studio with satisfyingly sore muscles, the sign of a good workout, but not much else. In the real world, I was still a person ridden with anxiety and insecurities. It was obvious in the way I second-guessed myself at work, the way I focused on the negative everywhere else.
Somewhere between getting engaged and losing my job, I learned to change my gaze. To look inward, where my true strength resides—to quiet my my mind from the worldly distractions competing for priority, from the nagging voice in my head that’s constantly questioning. And just be. A small act that takes a surprisingly large amount of faith.
It’s been almost two years since I made a commitment to my practice, and since then, I feel as if I’ve become a different person. There are still days that I wonder if I’m on the right path, that I worry about what’s to come. But all it takes is a few minutes on my mat to bring me back to the present—to remind me of all I have, how fortunate I am, what I’m capable of.
Yoga has taught me stillness. And with that, an appreciation of the life I’m leading today. Such a rarity in this busy, ever-evolving world.
As I breathe through each pose, my muscles shaking a little under the weight, the burdens I didn’t even know I was carrying begin to melt off of me. Anxiety, fears, doubt. Little by little, I grow lighter.
Photo by Misty Pittman.