How Yoga Helps

 

Every time I step onto my yoga mat, it is like climbing onto a life raft. I know that no matter what waters of emotional circumstance surround me, I am safe inside my practice. Some days I jump on with buoyancy and glee, other days it takes every last ounce of life force I can muster to barely crawl on. However, no matter how I get to my life raft, with laughter or tears, energy or exhaustion, once there I rest. I rest knowing that like a gently rocking boat, my yoga practice holds me as I flow through the river of life.

There on my life raft, some days I float, basking in the sunlight of joy, chanting with abandon and luxuriating in the sensations of my limbs expanding in downward dog. Other days, feeling no joy whatsoever, I stand in mountain pose before beginning to teach a class. I close my eyes, breathe a restorative Ujayii breath, and pray for Spirit to give me something, anything of value to say to my class…some wisdom to keep me afloat and to link a lifeline to those who have come to me for inspiration.  I pray not to fall off my raft into the swirling currents of emotional reactivity. Other days still I am able to be pure witness to the ever changing vistas around me, unattachedly appreciating the beauty of life in its many forms.  And sometimes I feel the wonder of a child creeping in as a posture I have done 10,000 times suddenly feels brand new. I discover that truly each moment, each breath, is an opportunity for new life.

People say their practice evolves over the years, but over the years it is my practice that has evolved me. It met me when I was 28, fiery and fast, driven and determined to master my body through this intricate physical discipline. In my 20’s, I explored the wonder of my physicality through yoga, learning viscerally for the first time since being an infant, the sensual nature of my body as a vehicle for pleasure and experience.

In my 30’s I learned how to understand and accept my emotional energies, gazing through the glass of Western psychology into the vastness of Eastern mysticism. I learned to truly feel, but also to let go of the feelings, knowing myself as more than the ebbing and flowing tides. I share this now with my students. More than once as a class has arrived I have found myself just completing my centering meditation, tears flowing down my face from feeling my life as it is unfolding in that moment. I do not choke the tears back and put on a smile, but rather I allow my students to share in my knowing that it is ALL okay, every tear, every peal of laughter. And we laugh….we laugh so much on our mats. In my classes, I challenge my students, as I challenge myself, to find humor in their human ways. And always I embrace them and myself in our silliness with deep compassion and reverence. In the duality of this exposure and acceptance, we know ourselves and we are known to each other.

My practice has evolved me now at age 43 into someone who can sit in stillness with the deepest levels of compassion for whatever is occurring for myself and another, without having to do anything other than love and be. In my 40’s, I am diving deeper into the river of consciousness with the safe support of my life raft. The ever expanding vistas of being that I have beheld along the river of consciousness are numerous, and my yoga practice, provides the structure and the support to keep exploring.  As I prepare this year to lead a retreat centered on the theme of imagination, I seek to expand more than ever before. With my students I will explore how the Eight Limbs of Yoga anchor us as we plunge into the depths of imaginative travel through the waters of consciousness. And as I do so, my practice keeps me from getting lost or feeling afraid of the vastness.

The Yamas and Niyamas are our touch points of loving direction like a mother’s warm arms to a toddler who has ventured out to explore the bigness of his new world.  The Asanas and Pranayama keep us connected to our particular, unique physical manifestation this lifetime. And Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana direct our vision toward the source of cosmic is-ness from which we all come.

Finally and most beautifully, I know that on my life raft, I am not alone. With me is my family. A family that is bigger, broader and older than one could ever know in just one lifetime. From the community of my little yoga studio, to the lineages of ancestors and teachers from thousands of years past, to all the practitioners worldwide, striving to learn and live the same principles I am…principles of peace, truth, generosity, simplicity, contentment and dedication to the Divine. This is my ideal family, the one I always dreamed of, understanding, like-minded, and compassionate. These are bonds of the heart, rather than bloodlines that bind us. And my practice is my essential home, a place I can return again and again, where I am always accepted.

Of course I carry this life raft wherever I go, but the days I can come to my mat in prayer and practice are the best. For an hour or a day, I leave what is “out there” until later and dive into the stream inside. My raft never fails me, any mood, any emotion, any challenge. I always complete my practice feeling better than when I began. Any tears of sorrow or pain are transmuted into tears of gratitude and joy, through an hour or more of breathing, chanting, meditating and moving. And I share this with my students so they will know that yoga is not about some destination or accomplishment, but rather the moment by moment unfolding of experience. My practice finds me wherever I am, asks more from me than I think I have to give, and then when I rise to the challenge, rewards me tenfold with strength, energy and renewed hope.

Over the past 15 years, I have survived some of life’s most tumultuous waters, by holding on to my life raft of yoga. Loss of a child, a marriage, a home, a career, severe depression, anxiety, stress and grief. The more turbulent the rapids trying to toss me off, the more I have clung to my practices of centering breath, mindfulness, pratipaksha bhavana, meditation and strong asanas to move the emotionally stuck energy through my body and mind.

On my knees in child’s pose, I have shed many tears on my life raft, praying to feel connection to my source. And I have stood tall in tree pose, spreading my branches to heights of joy I never could have imagined possible, as my practice has led me to the absolute knowing of my inseparable connection to that source. It is in this knowing that I find the essence of Yoga and I rest.

 

© 2008 Jennie Lee reprints by permission