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Lessons on the mat

Sometime during my mid to late forties, yoga became a part of my life. It was post double back surgery and in the midst of a self care wake up call. Contrary to the denial land I had lived in, staying healthy in mind, body and soul were going to require intentional effort. I found a nearby 6 am class and snuck into the back on the very first day. I entered the studio without one piece of knowledge about the mechanics of yoga and didn’t even know what downward facing dog meant. I was huffing and puffing all through this inaugural class, which in time I realized was directly counter to the essence of a yoga practice.

The class was led by a gentle and encouraging instructor, and he was a kind introduction to a practice that has truly changed my life. Aside from the fact that I don’t wake up stiff each morning, the benefits and lessons have been both surprising and multiple. Here are just a few.

Listen to your body. Many of us have an uncanny ability to ignore the physical signals pulsing through our bodies to give us clues and instructions on how to live in a more healthy space. Personally, I used to ignore the whisperings and even as my physical being desperately tried to speak louder, I didn’t pay attention until we were in full blown shouting mode. This approach led to several different health crises.

Yoga teaches me to listen for and respond to adaptations needed for the task before me which has led to greater respect and appreciation for my physical body. There are days when I need to pull back and respect limitations and others when it is appropriate to push harder. Ego must be checked and an awareness of exactly where I am on any given day must be respected.

Doing yoga with a friend can be more fun. For the first several years of my practice, I was self-conscious and felt most comfortable when I snuck into a class where I knew no one and could plant myself in the most unobtrusive location. Convinced that others were critiquing my form, flexibility and general personhood, way too much energy was directed toward the idea, mostly false I am sure, that others were interested in my yoga abilities. I now know that the inward aspect of the practice is much more important than the outward.

A few years ago, my friend Liisa started inviting me to go to class with her. This flew in the face of my yoga ways. At first, it was uncomfortable, especially since this friend is strong and flexible and has practiced a lot longer than me. But as I embraced the invitations, I realized that practicing with another adds a new dimension. It helps me to become a healthier type of self-conscious.

Be the healthy type of self focused. I remember touting the benefits of yoga to a young friend. She told me that when she tried it, she got so angry that others could do physical poses that caused struggle for her.

The other day I went to a class. I guess when you put the adjective “power” in front of the word yoga, you are inviting a different kind of experience. As I participated, I could feel it in the air. It was the female equivalent of a pissing contest. Maybe when youngish women wear spandex and are presented with great physical challenge, the female testosterone swells. Our teacher felt it too. She kept saying over and over, “close your eyes”.

The challenge in that situation is to completely focus on self, but in a healthy way. Looking around, comparing and measuring performance is highly detrimental to the goals of yoga. Closing eyes and focusing where my own mind and body are located is extremely beneficial. This is a lesson I can take off of the mat and out into the world.

Things learned as a child often come back in adulthood. When I was a girl, my best friend Tracy was a reasonably talented gymnast. She taught me how to do a headstand. I briefly served as coach in her short-lived quest for Olympic gold.

I remember when our daughters were young and I was in my early 40’s, I tried to do a headstand for them and failed miserably. After practicing yoga for several years, I decided to reassess my headstand ability. In my 50’s, I now regularly stand on my head. I guess an old dog can reclaim old tricks.

Mindfulness matters. As a long time denier of my own struggles with anxiety and depression, my mindless coping strategies became less and less sufficient for the task at hand. Meditation and yoga have proven to be of tremendous benefit in addressing these personal challenges.

Learning to breathe in and out each present moment sounds simple yet is deeply complex. An intentional soul posture of gratitude for each and every breath as well as a conscious practice of thankfulness for the abilities of my physical body on any given day are life changing. So many of our most profound gifts can be taken for granted.

Time on the mat has changed me for the better. I know that there is much more to learn and incorporate as I live each day, hour and moment. I look forward with anticipation to future lessons presented and accepted on the mat.