I came across this article in the New York Times yesterday about how yoga can wreck your body if you don't do it properly. And I thought, duh.
Then I realized that most people don't understand that yoga isn't about being in exactly the right position and being able to put your foot over your head. It's about something else entirely.
Yoga is, first and foremost, about awareness. You learn through the poses and the breathing to notice: your breath, your facial expression, tightness or looseness in your muscles, effort or relief. I remember when I first learned to focus on my breath and not on the pose itself, and yoga completely changed for me. It became a radically different experience. I had been concentrating on making sure I was doing the pose correctly, worrying about it, fretting about why my muscles wouldn't hold the pose as long as other newbies. But when I started to think about my breath, just the words in-out-in-out in my head, it's like all of the pieces snapped together. It became easier to move smoothly from one pose to the other, I cared less about the effort my muscles felt, I was able to hold poses longer. Everything changed.
Awareness is perhaps the biggest gift that yoga has given me, and one that I'm thankful for every day. And it's not just about how my body feels during the practice, though that is very important; that awareness permeates my life. I'm aware of how delicious the cold air feels after a day in my stuffy classroom. I'm aware of the minute changes in your expression that tell me you're happy or sad, frustrated or calm. I'm aware of when I start to get aggravated before my brain says I'm really annoyed right now. I'm aware of how good that sushi tastes and how much I've gotten to laugh today and how awesome my friends are.
That awareness becomes a way to control or to let go. It helps me remember to breathe and not get frustrated when I've been giving my students all week to work on an essay in class and told them the due date a million times and inevitably someone says, Miss we have a essay due?! Yoga helps me control my frustration with others, and -this is key - with myself. It helps me to acknowledge mistakes that I've made, and it helps me call others out in a respectful way. And then, it helps me to let go. It helps me to let go of what happened last period so that I can teach this period positively. It helps me let go of my disappointment or frustration or hurt. It helps me let go of assumptions I have or unrealistic expectations. It helps me let go of myself, which is scary and confusing but ultimately incredibly liberating.
And always, I come back around to awareness. Because I'm learning to let go of what I don't need, I'm learning what I do need. I don't know all of it and I never will, and that's ok. But I'm learning that there are things I'm willing to accept, and things I am not. I'm learning that there are things I want, and things I do not. I'm learning that there are things I expect, and things I do not. There are things that I deserve from people in my life, and things that they deserve from me. There is love to give, and there is love to receive. And at the bottom of all of that is the feeling of down dog and the steady in-out-in-out of the breath.