I’ve been practicing yoga for long enough now that I’m starting to truly begin to understand, at least at the tip of the iceberg level, what yoga can be. For years I practiced for how it feels in my body, for the pursuit of flexibility and instagram-worthy poses, for the fitness of yoga. There is nothing wrong with this – after all, yoga is a physical activity and for most people it is a reliable source of exercise on a regular basis. I used yoga to compliment whatever fitness regimen I was on at the time, and the weekly (or more frequent) yoga class was a nice change of pace. I’m someone who needs my exercise to be intense, which is why I always end up doing HIIT, weight lifting, or kickboxing, but yoga has always provided a much needed break from the constant soreness, tightness, and aggressiveness of my fitness schedule. I’ve gone to yoga to stretch out, to relax, and to tone muscles that I didn’t know I had. For that, I’m grateful, as it has introduced yoga into my life as something worth pursuing with many benefits.
Over the last 10 years, my relationship with yoga has deepened as I started paying attention to how it actually made me feel internally. I’ve struggled with self-awareness and I’ve never felt quite in tune with my inner self – I’ve gotten by through reactions, adaptations, building walls around my heart and by mostly avoiding true vulnerability. I always admired people who just knew what their body or soul needed, and pursued it without fear. I always wondered what the secret was to really be able to hear whats inside and I figured I would just not be one of those people, but over the years yoga has taught me that self reflection and introspection are not god-given gifts, they are skills that some of us have nurtured and others of us have ignored. Before yoga and healthy eating, I fell into the ‘ignore’ camp, like most people. But what kept bringing me back to my mat over and over again was this tiny, quiet little voice that kept telling me that there was something more to be discovered. I’ve had days when I was all over the place and my yoga practice was boring or frustrating, and I’ve had magical moments when I was able to dig a little deeper into the rabbit hole towards my inner self.
Yesterday was one of those moments, and the good news is, they’re becoming more and more frequent the more I practice. I laid my mat outside in the backyard of my parents house where I grew up in California. It was a perfect day, as usual, and I was excited to take a moment to myself to enjoy the blue California skies before I have to go back to North Carolina. I found myself in Camatkarasana (aka Wild Thing or Flipped Dog), which is such a joyful, heart-opening backbend (and one of my favorite yoga poses) and as I stood there, firmly grounded with three limbs rooted into the earth and an arm extended out as if reaching for something far away, I had a beautiful realization. The enormous oak tree that shadows over our entire house was upside down and suddenly I wasn’t looking at my favorite tree as I had known it my whole life, but I was looking at the roots of another tree that I had never seen before. Its branches buried themselves into the sea of blue sky, drawing water from the endless ocean above, and the earth was now the sky above me as I stood there upside down, seeing everything turned on its head. I realized that the tree I’ve known forever has another equally massive tree reaching deep into the earth, mirroring its above-ground twin. Branches are roots to the sky, and roots are branches to the earth. All trees are really two trees, working together as siamese twins, sharing one heart but two bodies in two universes, and when flipped upside down, they can each play the role of the other.
I smiled as I saw my upside down tree looking like roots. I imagined myself underground and then wondered what true underground critters think about their earth tree. I felt playful with the image and I let myself run with a childish imagination where no idea is too strange to be played with. I remembered playing with toys with my sister or my friends and remembered that we used to be amazing improvisational actors, saying “Yes, and…” to all the wild suggestions and losing ourselves to the bizarre worlds we would create together during play time. I ‘unflipped my dog’ and returned to downward dog and told myself I would continue to say “Yes, and…” during the rest of my practice. This change in perspective made all the difference for the rest of the hour I spent exploring where my body wanted to go. I felt a tired ache in my leg during warrior two as my body was starting to say, “Ok this hurts, stop doing this,” and instead of giving into the pain, I said… “Yes, I feel pain. And… I will just look at it another way.” I reframed what I was feeling in my body, flipped pain upside down like the tree, removed that instinct to abort mission, and just stayed there. I remembered to breathe, and in one magical moment, the pain was gone. A simple reframe of what pain means made pain disappear. I had never experienced anything like that before and I felt as though I had just uncovered a major secret of yoga that I didn’t know existed: It’s all about perspective.
I also discovered another wonderful thing through these small moments in my practice: the power of mindfulness and introspection. I began to see that perhaps uncovering that connection to myself like what I see other people exude comes from mindfulness – taking a moment to look internally, see whats going on, observe it, not judge it, and let the feeling be. Even during yoga when I’m alone and silent, I can catch myself telling my mind not to think about certain things because of some socially-constructed idea of what is normal and what is abnormal. Had it been a different day, I might have caught myself imagining myself as an underground critter next to this sky tree, and I would have said, “Okay, you’re crazy and weird, just focus on the pose.” Its those micro aggressions we place upon ourselves that make self-connection very difficult – we are constantly sabotaging our own progress. But yesterday for whatever reason I just let myself think what I was thinking and openly free associate my thoughts, without judgment and that openness led to a wonderful treasure that I can keep with me not just when I practice yoga, but in any part of my life. Its called yoga ‘practice’ because its a constantly evolving practice and you’re never done, and its also a reminder that we’re constantly in practice-mode, trying out the new things we’ve learned over and over and over again until we get better at them. Yoga wasn’t always this special for me, nor did I ever learn much about myself through yoga until I started listening to that voice that called me down the rabbit hole and promised me adventures and places I’d never been. I’m grateful every time I step on, or off, the mat, for listening to that voice that brought me to truly begin to uncover the yoga beyond the poses.