I never thought I’d be one of “those people,” but Yoga has changed my life.
Back in the 60’s I had a cousin who returned from India one summer, dressed in white robes and spent hours a day twisted into pretzel like shapes on Clifton Beach in Cape Town where I spent my time sunning myself and swimming in the freezing Atlantic Ocean.
Later that same summer, a friend’s brother returned from 9 years spent with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, and although he too wore the flowy white garments, he regaled us with stories of the Beatles and Beach Boys so we were impressed enough to all line up to get our ™ Mantras.
Although I’ve meditated pretty regularly ever since, I rejected the pretzel poses of Hatha Yoga.
That my mother and grandmother both attended Yoga classes, may have had something to do with my rejection of it, I never bothered to mention. “I’m not Hindi.” I’d announce when asked if i practiced Yoga. “I swim.” And that was that.
“Come to Yoga,” she’d invite me often.
“I’m not a pretzel.” Was my stock reply. Until 6 months ago, when after a two and a half year journey healing a rare lymphoma, I caved.
My oncologist had advised me to avoid indoor, public pools like the plague. Swimming outside in a preferably, non-chlorinated pool was okay, but spas, gyms and the Youth & Family Center were out! After a summer spent swimming at the Quail Ridge, I was at a loss. After two years with no swimming and very little exercise, my once athletic and toned body was atrophied and shapeless. Ten extra pounds gained due to having quit smoking upon diagnosis didn’t help (although I was happy to have been able to quit with the help of things like this tobacco-free product, and a LOT of willpower). I felt like a blob.
“Come to Yoga.” Genevieve was starting to sound like a broken record.
One morning, I pulled on some leggings and a tank top that revealed all the lumps and bumps I’d been hiding under baggy sweats for a year, and off I went to Shree. I’ve got nothing to lose, I figured. Well, 6 months down the line (and I go pretty infrequently, maybe if I’m lucky twice weekly, although I do practice at home), I still hate Yoga. The idea of it and doing it. But I love it as well! And not just because my weight and body are back to normal, but for myriad other reasons as well. I cannot explain how at peace I feel every time I go to a Marianne Wells retreat.
The fickle problem I’ve always had with Yoga (having grown up in South Africa which has the largest Indian/Hindu population outside of India), is that Yoga has become so popular that it’s been seemingly co-opted and commercialized in ways that culturally appropriate the ancient tradition, and it’s something that I, as a white South African woman, am especially cognizant of, and sensitive to.
But today, I can’t imagine living without it. It has turned into a practice that has become integral to my mental, physical, and spiritual health, and something I now approach like taking regular medication.
Yoga has helped me to re- connect with, and appreciate my body, to deepen my meditation practice and survive a work schedule that is basically never-ending and really hard on my back. (I sit at a computer half the day.) It has also gifted me with more patience than I ever thought possible and has boosted my energy considerably!
Here are a few of the things I’ve learned in class that have shaped my everyday life.
Take what you need and leave the rest: This is a message that I’ve heard from all the Yoga teachers I’ve been in class with, and the first few times it was a little confusing for me. But this little lesson is applicable in so many ways, and has coaxed me to tune into what I needed. I could choose rest instead of a pose in class. I could discard advice that was unhelpful. And I could shape my habits to be more intentional. Practicing discernment became part of my daily practice, thanks to Yoga.
Take care of yourself: In class this usually refers to learning to place your hand or foot exactly where it needs to be to support your next pose, so that you can seamlessly transition without injuring yourself. But it resonated deeply with me, because I realized that taking care of your (future) self is just another form of self-care. It shifted my attitude about doing difficult or tedious things, because now I’m able to look at a tedious chore as an opportunity to take a little load off of “future me.” Making a doctor’s appointment, eating well, and resisting sugar are all little acts of self-love.
Taking up space: Sometimes this is phrased as “finding space,” and it’s usually a progressive thing, something you are meant to grow in. In a physical sense, it refers to developing more strength and flexibility so that your body can literally take up more space. But it feels very potent to me in the sense of taking up space in my work, my relationships, and simply growing into a more full version of myself. We so often try to make ourselves smaller; to squeeze and conform ourselves into the spaces we live in, so to take up space is to reject that habit and to find room to grow.
Nothing will open unless it feels safe: When I first heard this, my daughter (and Yoga teacher), was, at the time, expressing the need to build strength in our core in order to fully open our heart during back-bends. But I saw it as a powerful metaphor. We need a strong foundation of trust in order to open our emotional hearts. We need to develop internal self – love in order to be vulnerable in loving relationships.
Nothing is perfect: The point of Yoga is not to achieve Instagram perfection in the poses or asanas, but rather to deepen one’s awareness of being in one’s body together with all the discomfort and friction of “real life” as one learns to calm the mind. Perfection is not the goal, but a mind free of chatter, is. “Asana means easy seat.” My daughter reminds us often. Easy does not mean perfect, nor does it mean easy. I imagine once one has been practicing a long time, there is a certain “ease” in the poses. I’ll strive for that.
Such simple truths, but all of them life changing.
So yeah, I still hate Yoga, as I begrudgingly pull on those leggings and tank tops (that now, by the way, I feel okay in, especially considering I have designed my own with this website that stocks everything from custom tank tops to custom windbreakers), and drag myself to Shree no matter the external (and internal) weather, knowing I’ll feel a hundred percent better once I’ve emerged from that Corpse Pose that signals the end of class!
For more on Shree Yoga Taos, please visit their site linked below.
All images thanks to Bill Curry