I am currently reading The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele. In one chapter the author discusses the different times of our lives, and the different values that serve us during these stages. She exhorts us to perform some kind of ritual marking the passage of one stage of life into the next: so we can step into our new purpose and leave our emotional and thought baggage of the past behind.
She also talks about how important it is to honor the lessons we’ve learned – as they brought us to where we are today.
This is her wonderful, diplomatic way of saying:
Yeah there were some big messes back there, but painful as they were – you learned something, right?
My yoga story is rather mundane. Yoga didn’t change my life in some ground-shifting way; but it has been my constant companion through career changes, many moves, through difficulty (and reconciliation) within my marriage, through having children – and through addiction then, sobriety.
I guess that DOES sound rather dramatic when I write that all out like that!
I was not brought up in any kind of spiritual tradition, any kind of ethical practice. My father was an atheist-agnostic who deeply appreciated Buddhist thought; therefore the only “spiritual” books in my home were Buddhist ones.
(To the family’s surprise) my mother converted to Christianity when I was seventeen. This didn’t make much of an impact on me to be honest because by then of course, I had begun to carry my own ideas of right and wrong, of ethical conduct, of divinity versus impiety.
It seems an absolutely lifetime between the time I left my family home at age eighteen (1995) and when I first set foot in a yoga class – around 2002, I think. In those seven short years I’d lived through many harrowing “adventures” and I’d arrived to the greatest adventure of my life (so far): partnership, and children.
By the time I stepped on the mat for the first time I knew I wanted something grounding, something to practice on my path. I’d had enough of the things we worship as Americans – beauty, sex, power, intoxication and titilation – and I knew material possessions didn’t bring happiness.
There had to be more!
This was where I was, when I set foot on my first yoga mat. A new parent, a new life. Ready to grow!
And of course way back in 2002 – well like many Americans introduced to yoga, I didn’t realize there was a philosophical and spiritual path involved. I thought it was another workout, a new style of fitness to try. I vaguely knew – or thought I knew – that a good deal of strength and flexibility was involved.
But even in that first class – the none-too-clean basement of a gym in Port Townsend – I could tell yoga was something special.
For one thing, it felt good! Sweaty, challenging – but wonderful.
My body felt better, lighter, more energized and open when I left.
For another thing, it was so delightfully simple! I was amazed that just by using one’s own body – no equipment, no mathematical weightlifting metrics, no steroids or enhancers – that just by being there with myself I could get stronger, more whole – I could go deeper!
I left that first session floating on cloud nine.
I wanted more!
But the next yoga class I remember going to, wasn’t so great.
I somehow found my way to an advanced Kundalini yoga class. In an upstairs room downtown I took my place next to our instructor, and two other students. One of the students was obviously very advanced, very practiced – just like the teacher. The two of them sped through very strenuous, difficult poses without offering assistance or modification. Myself and the other student – also a beginner – well, we huffed and puffed and sweated and (internally at least) cursed.
I felt sweaty, inelegant, flabby – ashamed. I left with my spirits low.
You see: that was my first lesson in unskillful teachers.
Teachers who don’t know how to watch their students. Teachers who can’t (or won’t) tactfully offer alternatives, variations, and modifications.
Teachers who didn’t know how to read the room!
But as bad as that experience was I kept going back – to any class I could find, any class I could afford.
I couldn’t stay away!
Eventually I began to learn yoga was not an exercise fad or craze – that it was a 5,000 year old way of life imbued with many many schools of learning, many texts and books, many teachers.
Yoga isn’t about “self-improvement” or gain – it is a dance deeper into a better way of living. Into more integrity, love, joy – and humor!
(People don’t talk about the humor in yoga enough, I find!)
At first I thought I had to learn everything – or at least learn enough yoga to impress anyone who wanted to query me.
Eventually I came to realize I could never learn it all, so the best thing was just to start learning what I could.
I have obviously been to terrible yoga classes over the last twenty-one years. I’ve been to the worst kind of “workout” style classes, with teachers who were used shaming language or infused orthorexia and fitness culture into our every move. I’ve been in classes with incompetent or cruel teachers, teachers who perform adjustments without consent, teachers who say things that leave students in tears.
But what’s wild is that even through the worst class I always found some benefit.
That’s how I know I love yoga and I’ll never stop.
Thanks to yoga I am physically stronger now than ever (if you come to a class, you’ll see)! Obviously, this feels wonderful- and energizing!
But yoga asana (that is: the physical practice of the Eight Limbs of Yoga) isn’t a destination, or a competition.
It really is a practice.
That is: something that we do regularly.
And (as I keep reminding us here) yoga is more than asana, more than a physical practice. For instance: you are generally supposed to practice the yamas and niyamas – that is, ten of yoga’s ethical guidelines laid out in the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eightfold path – before you focus on asana (the third limb).
Most Americans just bust right into asana – looking to reduce their flabby tummies, or tone their bum, or whatever.
So if that’s how you got here, that’s fine!
And in my class, you will definitely get stronger.
What I want to deliver to you is a pure joy – joy in being on the mat, in learning how to make contact with ourselves.
Through physical practice we become more connected with who we are, and who we want to be.
We become more confident that what we do, that who we are, can make a difference in our community and in our world.
So from my many years ago in that grubby gym basement –
I have come a long way.
I look forward to joining you on the mat!
Here is a link to The Yamas & Nijamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice book site; this is not an affiliate link.