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Inspiring health and happiness in body, mind and spirit

The Gift of Yoga

February 2, 2010
I still remember sitting in Starbucks that afternoon, with a skeptical friend sipping her latte and grinning bemusedly at me. On and on I rambled about that blissed-out, washed-clean feeling I’d stumbled upon during my first yoga class, where I'd contorted myself into pretzel shapes with crazy Sanskrit names.

"Why?" she kept asking me. All I could muster up in response seemed simplistic and underwhelming. "I really don’t get it," I said, "but somehow yoga helps me feel alive again."

And here I am, thousands of dog poses and hundreds of headstands later, still at a loss when I try to explain the mysterious gift of yoga. I’ve poured over ancient texts, memorized yamas and niyamas, climbed into asanas, settled into pranayama, struggled with sutras and bandhas and mudras. I’ve read Patanjali and Eliade and Iyengar and more, and have studied with many of the world's greatest teachers from a range of yoga traditions. After all this deliberate study, "it helps me feel alive" is still the truest answer I can find.

Yoga means union. It aims to show us that we are all one. Breath by breath, the practice reveals to us that the boundaries we create within and around ourselves are only illusions, and that the little self of the body is just a vessel for the vast and beautiful Self of the whole wide world. I don’t want to know this only in my brain, I want to feel it in every cell of my body, too. And climbing onto my mat each morning and playing around with the energy I find helps me settle into that expansive big-sky goodness that reminds me we’re all in this together and we might as well help each other out along the way.

STRETCHING INTO OUR OWN SKIN
I practice yoga because life’s difficulties sometimes conspire to shut me down, and I want to stay open and shiny instead. Fears, tears, yearnings and worries have a tendency to freeze us up, pull us in, spin us out. When life comes along and whacks me in the gut until I feel all my rivers damning up inside, I twist and bend and roll and stretch my way back into my own skin. Yoga is my balm, my way of remembering how to bloom again.

I’ve heard Buddhists talk about monkey-mind, and I have more than just monkeys in my brain. I have a whole jungle full of wild and whirling beasts that rarely stop screeching and screaming and swirling inside. The ancient sage Patanjali defined yoga as the intentional stilling of the mind-stuff, and those three cryptic Sanskrit words that explain this - Yogah Cittavrtti Nirodhah - give me great hope. Perhaps there is a way to calm those beasts inside my brain, to climb back into the peace and stillness I know is my birthright. I’m faithful that if I keep digging deeper and unraveling farther, I’ll peel away enough of the busy-ness that I can find my way back to the unshakeable ease of someone who knows they are at home inside, where ever they may be.

I practice yoga because when I was five years old my best friend Leslie Yoakum taught me how to do a cartwheel. That cartwheel became a handspring and then the splits and then a back flip. Some of my happiest childhood memories are spinning around in the green summer grass, flipping and flopping alone and with friends, exploring the limits and possibilities of our bodies, daring ourselves not to flip again. Cartwheels were my childhood magic, and sometimes I feel yoga is just a grown up excuse to spin in the grass like a child. It’s magic still.

I practice yoga because I spent too many adolescent years waging war against my body. For too long my body was only an enemy to be battled into a form the world called ideal. It wasn’t until I started practicing yoga that I realized I am my body just as much as my brain and my spirit, and that battling one’s own shape is just another form of violence against one’s self. Yoga helps me feel strong and supple and fluid and agile. And that helps me feel full and content and grateful for a body that feels healthy, shiny and alive.

Yoga isn’t about how things look from the outside, and I love that. I’m thankful that in yoga there are no mirrors, that our sense of beauty and movement and liveliness is gained not from how we look on the outside but how we feel within. It’s the inner experience, the inner attention and energy that makes yoga what it is, whether you’re lying flat on the floor or bending unfathomably backward. No one else really knows, because the honesty comes from inside. The rewards, too.

ENERGY UNBOUND
I practice yoga because on too many days the din of outside noise drowns out the song of life inside. Life is so loud, so fast, so crowded that without at least a few moments on my own – alone, quiet and internally focused – I never quite feel on my mark. My morning yoga ritual helps keep my attention and intention and expression focused on what I know on the inside to be important and real.

I love the fact that yoga is so versatile, like a stretch suit that can be worn inside out or right side in or backwards or even upside down. Some days I live in a more physical world and my yoga reflects that – focusing on an aching shoulder or mastering a new and demanding pose. Some days I’m more emotionally focused, and my practice becomes about learning how to make friends with all those stirred up feelings inside, as I lie quietly and let my emotional weather roll through.

Some days I’m nothing more than energy unbound, and I find myself spiraling through movements no yogi has ever named. And some days I just breathe. I let the breath’s oceanic pulse carry me through my morning practice.

I love that I can approach yoga from all these different angles and still feel welcome here. Because of yoga’s immensity and versatility, the scientist and artist and mystic and pragmatist inside me all feel welcome and nurtured. I have faith that yoga is big enough for each of us to find our own way, while still walking down those cosmic happy trails together.

DEEPER FORM OF LIFE
I don’t want to march through life. I’m not content to skim along the surface or let life’s aches and fears freeze my inner rivers of curiosity and delight. I want to fly and sing and make a joyful noise instead. And although sometimes I’m not sure what I think about all the esoteric visions of chakras whirling and kundalini rising and apana falling, as well as some of the other exotica of yoga, I do know there is a deeper form of life that pulses through each of us. Call it God or prana or universal spirit or just plain old love. It’s there, I feel it.

And I know I was made to sparkle with it, as you are. I know that each of us was born to be a vessel for that pulsing, shooting star of life. The name of the spiritual game is to find our way back to that childlike flowering that comes when we dissolve our self-imposed and self-imprisoning boundaries. And when this happens, life happily pours in and through and out beyond us back into the world again, carrying with it all the shiny resonances of those who’ve ever lived.

Yoga brings me back to this open and unbounded feeling of vitality -  breath after breath, day after day, and year after year. And so I settle onto my mat each day with a smile, knowing that yoga will surely work its magic again, plugging me back into the heart of the world, bringing me right back home.

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This article was originally published in Yoga Journal (February 2000)