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Inspiring health and happiness in body, mind and spirit

Touching Your Toes

May 7, 2012
She couldn't bend over and pick it up. She didn't look unwell, or even particularly old, but when she tried to retrieve the organic shampoo bottle she'd knocked off the shelf, she struggled.

I scooped up the container, put it back on the counter, and smiled at her as she shuffled out of the health food store.

Wow, I thought to myself, even bending over can be hard. Wow, I mused, I wonder what it feels like to live in a body like that. And wow, I thought, I wonder what I can do to make sure my body can move all the ways I want it to for as long as it possibly can.

I smiled in relief when I realized that I'd long ago found my answer, one that can last a lifetime. Sprinkling one's life with yoga is a good way to make sure you can pick things up off the ground. And reach the high shelf on your tippy-toes. And twist far enough around to see what's behind you when backing out of the parking lot.

Is it possible to love an idea, a philosophy, a crazy way of contorting the body? Is it even sane to love something with its roots in a world you've never visited, in a language you cannot speak, with lofty aims that are so much deeper than simply touching your toes?

Apparently yes. Because as I stand here in the doorway of the store with my four-year-old's sweaty hand in mine, I am overcome by gratitude. I am seized with love for yoga's many gifts. I want to climb atop the tallest building and shout out, "Yoga! Yoga! Please, let's all practice yoga! We'll be stronger, we'll be kinder, we'll be able to touch our toes again!"

I didn't shout, or even mumble. I bought my milk and eggs and black bean salsa, and headed out the door.

I do my best to not proselytize. I know that my answer isn't your answer. I'm not so far gone that I miss the fact that downward dogs and dancing warriors sometimes incite eye rolls in others. And I know that you may find some other way to save your life.

But the truth is that yoga saves me every day. When the kids are screeching and I just want to run, I close my eyes, find my breath, and exhale until I can feel my feet on the ground again. When my mind is overtaken by wild and uncontrollable worries, I sit and settle, unclench the death-grip I hold upon my life, and grow quiet enough that I see the truth of the moment a little more clearly, and then act a little more wisely.

When I'm standing in front of a big decision, I fight my impulsivity and remind myself to slow down, to sit with what is, to wait patiently with an open heart until I feel the answer bubble up from within.

And when I'm feeling small and constricted, I climb onto my mat and stretch myself out into my full skin, which it turns out doesn't end with my body but reaches to the far ends of the universe. Wow - we are these small selves, but we are "yoked" and united with something so vast and beautiful that is nothing less than the whole world.

The Buddha taught that there's no defeating the three realities of life: sickness, old age and death. I still tighten when this truth sinks into my bones. I've finally reached the age where I can no longer pretend I'm immortal. I've reached a place where the fragility of every living thing nearly takes my breath away.

But I have confidence in my answer, my response to this understanding. I'm sticking with yoga. And with an ever deepening appreciation for the beautiful shapes it takes and the potential it has to save us all. Not from death or inflexibility, but from the smallness of our minds and the toxicity of our fears, and the confusion of our own thoughts and ideas.

And so as I settle onto my yoga mat these days, waves of gratitude wash through me. For those Indian sages in loincloths who stood on the banks of the Ganges millennia ago, for the many teachers who traveled to far-off lands and brought these practices home to the west in forms we can understand. For the deep friendships I've formed through shared love of the practice. And for my students, who so gracefully welcome what I have to offer, and take on as their own this beautiful practice of yoga. And shine. And pass it on to others.

If you've already found yoga, you know just what I mean. You know how yoga can serve as a spiritual first-aid kit that's always by your side. And you've likely found your own ways to incorporate it into your life (even if it's been a while since you've made it to your mat). Or, maybe you know someone who practices yoga, and you benefit from yoga's residual goodness, as the kindness it cultivates in your loved one inevitably dusts off onto you.

Or maybe, just maybe, you're ready to give it a try. You don't have to be able stand on one foot or hold your breath for two minutes or touch your toes or speak a single sanskrit word. You need only bring your well-worn body to the mat, breathe deeply, and open your mind to the possibility that there's another way to live, that there's more to life than your small eyes can now see.

Wouldn't you like to be just a little more flexible, in both body and in mind? Wouldn't you like to feel more deeply connected to everyone and every thing around you? Wouldn't you like to grow a little kinder, a little more forgiving, a little more at ease?

And if all that sounds a little too esoteric and far-out, there is always this: Even though touching your toes isn't even close to being the point of yoga, when the shampoo bottle falls onto the floor, it feels so good to live in body that is strong and flexible enough to help clean up the mess.