~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Yoga From the Heart

May 28, 2010
I’m in a yoga class in San Francisco. We’re stretching our arms out to the sides, exploring whether we can let the movement be carried by some deep inner energy rather than raw muscle power. I don’t really get it, because of course I’m using muscles.

Then the instructor says, "It might help if you think of someone or someplace you’d really like to reach your arms toward." Instantly, my three-year old niece and nephew appear in my mind’s eye. My left hand reaches out to one of them and my right hand to the other, even though they are both two thousand miles away in Ohio. I smile with good wishes for these twins, and feel my arms grow just a little longer.

I breathe. I imagine aunt-ie love pouring from my heart through my shoulders and right out my fingertips, through the clean blue sky all the way to Ohio and into their warm and lively bodies. The ache in my deltoids disappears. I realize I could stand here in the California hills for hours, reaching my arms out this way, because at last I have a good reason to.

That’s when I finally get it: It’s not a movement, a stretch, or an exercise. It’s an offering. My heart wants to do what my brain has instructed my body to do. My thoughts and feelings and actions have been united, integrated, made whole. Intention matters, I realize with a start.

A week later, I walk into a different class. I hear a whisper that the group before us did 40 sun salutes in honor of B.K.S. Iyengar’s birthday. Inside I groan and wonder how I’ll make it through.
We begin. I hear, "Inhale, arms up, exhale, fold forward. Inhale, look up, exhale, head down..." and know this will be the steady heartbeat of the next hour. In desperation I remember intention, and decide that if I’m going to survive the morning, I’d better find a way to engage myself.

I remember that surya namaskar is a prayer, an expression of life and of thanksgiving for the sun rising into the new day. My arms reach up and I glimpse the sky above me, through a window just over my head. I’m surprised to hear a fragment of a childhood bible verse inside: "I will lift up mine eyes into the hills…"

I bow forward and remember surrender and devotion. I look up again in thanksgiving, and jump back in humility. This becomes my mantra, and in a funny way, it takes me right back to the beginning. I’m not just doing the poses, I’m feeling them, creating them, expressing them. I might as well be an ancient yogi waking thankfully to the sun after a long, dark night. My thoughts, my feelings, my actions have all become one. For the first time ever, perhaps, my sun salutes ring true.

I’ve come to California to help pull together a video about yoga. Day after day, I bury myself in a tiny editing room, where I struggle to keep myself afloat in hour upon hour of footage. Throughout it all, one fragment of the video ricochets through my brain: "Why would you want to do that stretch anyway?" asks yoga teacher Angela Farmer. "Unless you desperately want to do it, don’t do it. Unless the urge inside is so bursting to come out that you move out in that stretch, don’t do it!"

She’s speaking about where yoga came from, about how total the experience must have been for the world's first yogis. About how they completely immersed their whole being into the experience - head, heart, breath, movement, feelings, thoughts, instincts, yearnings. Her point, I think, is that so many of us today practice yoga without letting vast realms of our inner world be touched or moved or engaged in the experience. That brings me right back to those ancient sun salutes, right back to my arms reaching all the way back to Ohio, right back to attention, to engagement, to heartfelt intention.

"Why am I doing this?" I ask as I fall into a forward bend one morning. I ask the same question when I hop into dog pose, when I squirm into cobra, when I float off into movement that has no name. My first honest answer emerges from that raw, uncertain land of "I don’t know."

And then a whole lifetime of answers emerges: to work out a kink in my left hip, to remember how to exhale, to un-dam the rivers of life inside, to tranquilize those chattering monkeys upstairs in my brain. Because I’ve been told to practice more forward bends, because I love the challenge, because it helps me express something untapped inside, and because it just feels good. I find as many answers as there are poses.

As intrigued as I am by this unanswerable question of "why," my California experience points me toward its more pragmatic, earth-bound cousin: "How?" I’ll probably never figure out why I’ve been drawn to the world of yoga, why I climb onto my mat each morning, why I’ve come here to help with this video, why I’m here on this earth at all. But given that I am here, given these are the cards I’ve been dealt, how am I going to play the game? How am I going to live the life I’ve been given? Not just why, but how?

And that’s an easier question for me to answer. Whatever it is, why-ever it is, I want my life’s "how" to be wholehearted. I want my awareness, my emotions and my actions to be clean and clear and total and true. And I want everything about me, everything inside me, to find expression, to shine from a place of love and thanksgiving, in everything I do - whether it’s an essay or a video or a few morning rounds of salutations to the sun.

This essay was originally published in Yoga International (June 2003)