Yoga means yoke. I tell this to my students, as I show them a picture of an ox and a cart, with the yoke between. Though I’ve read many an article explaining that this isn’t at all what the word meant in its original context, it’s still a good way to teach kids about yoga. About joining the mind and body and learning to be present in our experience.
My journey into my own mind and body has been long, has worn many faces, and is still evolving and growing- as I hope it always will. The most recent iteration of this continuum for me has been especially important.
Having become a devoted student of a Tibetan Buddhist Lineage in the past five years, and delving incredibly deeply into the teachings and practices of this path, I was struggling to find the intersection of these teachings with my devotion and practice of yoga. I had also become a yoga teacher in those same five years, and had found my way into the eight limbs with equal fervor as the eightfold path.
Perhaps because I wasn’t practicing in a specific yogic lineage, perhaps because I had only found a few teachers who really seemed to embody the teachings yoga had offered me in my life, or perhaps simply because I was not ready, I couldn’t reconcile the two paths in my life. It’s not that they were conflicting. In fact, so much about them was overlapping. I didn’t only meditate in my Buddhist practice, but also in yoga. In fact my meditation practice highly influenced my asana practice. And my asana practice allowed me to deepen into incredibly long meditation practices, even being able to sit on silent retreat for a month.
My craving was more subtle. I kept thinking perhaps I should go to yet another teacher training, find a lineage, etc. etc. I was seeking someone or something outside myself to plug me into a certain depth of yoga that I had felt in my Buddhist practice. I wanted the two practices to dance my life into a seamless devotion. I didn’t want to have to choose between waking up at 5:30 am to go to class, or to sit my butt on the cushion.
Meanwhile, I showed up to class on New Year’s Day and the studio was offering unlimited yoga for the month of January for $99. They were doing a 30 Day Challenge- class every day, meditation every day, listing your gratitudes, and noticing your acts of kindness. The whole community was in on it. There was a pose of the day each day- teachers incorporated it into class, we heard stories about it, quotes about it. I signed up- although I have notable aversion to things like 30 day challenges. I find that too often in this fast paced society, it’s really easy to use things like this to not take care of ourselves, not listen to our bodies, and not find space in our lives. I find I can do things for all the wrong reasons. If I’m kind just so I can get points to win prizes, is that true kindness? If I practice every single day, even at the expense of my own well being- is that really practice?
I signed up, thinking that at least I could go to some of my favorite classes for much less money than usual, not intending to actually do the challenges. Then the first email came. And I was thinking- actually I already did all of these things today- I meditated, I was kind, I was grateful- why not just send them in? So I did. These are things that I do every day. This is part of my life practice. I sit regularly. I practice kindness and compassion. I touch in with gratitude. These are neither new to me, or a struggle at this point in my life.
I haven't gone to class every day. Nor have I sent in my challenges every day. But something has happened over the course of this month. Maybe it was being part of this community and seeing other people’s journeys into yoga, hearing their stories. Maybe it was going to classes I never would have otherwise attended- the new teachers I discovered I loved, and the ones I definitely didn’t. Maybe it was realizing I didn’t have to choose between dhyana or asana- that there was actually space in my life for both and that in fact they were inseparable. Maybe it was just the container created by this challenge- the space held by the teachers, and by ourselves to go deeper into our practice- whatever that meant.
What I discovered was an intimacy with myself that I had been out of touch with. I discovered the dance between intimacy and authenticity in my body. Intimacy is defined as close familiarity, or friendship. We are all craving intimacy- longing for it. It’s that connection that drives the human heart. It’s looking another being in the eyes. It’s wanting to be yourself without having to hide anything from another person or yourself. It’s longing to share the beautiful moments, or to have someone else understand your experience. It’s sitting in silence with someone else. It’s holding the hands of your children. It’s letting the grass tickle your bare feet, or feeling the caress of the wind. It’s being moved to tears on the drive to work because the sunrise is so beautiful.
In meditation, we get to know our minds- know the ins and outs, the favorite habitual thoughts, the go-to reactions, and we befriend those things. We learn to hold them tenderly so they do not overpower us. And while I had experienced this with my mind and heart during meditation, I had not been in touch with my body in the same way.
Two years ago, I suffered a stroke, only to discover I have a hole in my heart. This dance with death, impermanence, and the fragility of the human body left me with much insight but also a mistrust of my own physical body. Accepting that I could die at any moment was profound for me, but I think it allowed me to disconnect a bit from my physical experience. It wasn’t tuning out. In fact, I was so tuned in to every sensation, it became fear-based. At the slightest quiver of something unusual I was convinced the time was now (Awareness of its ins and outs can be mastered without the slightest bit of friendship.) I would die. And this was not okay. But I knew I had to trust my body while I was in it. And trust that its certain decay was good and whole too. And trust that its end would be exactly what I needed when I needed it. There was nothing to mistrust. Nothing to fear. Through many healing modalities I had slowly begun to regain trust in my own human body. I began to make friends. With the patience and adoration of a lover, I wanted to appreciate all the pieces. I could even build a trusting relationship with my body and its physical experience. Over the past month, my yoga practice has become an even more deeply attuned way to cultivate and nourish this relationship. I have seen and felt my own bodily wisdom manifest itself time and time again- knowing how to move, when to stop, and where to breathe.
In asana practice, we learn the intricacies of our bodies. The way our toes curl as we move from plank back to down dog. The particular sensation in chair when we have managed to move our weight enough into our heels that we can bend the knees more deeply. Where our edge rests each moment- when to push and when not. We learn the ebbs and flows of each day- the myriad ways our bodies manifest on the mat, never the same. We have to let go of our agendas and our projections of how we are, how we should be, and how we are supposed to be. In fact, when we are truly there, nothing is left but for us to show up exactly as we are. In true surrender to the asana, we lose even our capacity for exploiting our lower backs because we are so honest with ourselves we recognize it immediately. The more I know the subtleties of my body, my movement, my sensations, the more I can’t pretend. The more all the facades fall away. Yoga loses its ability to be about doing really cool arm balances (sorry, ego!), about achieving some goal, or about escaping death and becomes the ability to be so intimate with my own experience, my own body, heart, and mind, that I can actually show up genuinely. I can love my experience- whatever it is. I can trust it- trust my bones, my muscles, my five senses- trust their impermanence too. Trust my own bravery to look even at the things that are difficult to see. Trust my strength to be there whether I’m standing strong or falling down. And I think it’s this trust that is the yoking. Trust in things as they are gives us liberation from being attached to them. Trust in the world allows us to know that this perceived reality isn’t the ultimate truth. The yoking allows for the letting go. This is the reconciliation of all that feels separate in us- our paths, our practices, our perceptions. We just have to trust, and be exactly who we are, and automatically, that is union. That is true yoga.