I started practicing yoga in college because I was curious, and because I was a voice student, living the typical life of a music major. I was a sensitive soul surviving in a highly competitive and physically demanding field, taking anywhere between 8-12 classes every semester, performing nearly once or twice every week during certain seasons, and getting next to no rest.
I was driven to yoga, desperate for some kind of glue that could hold my fracturing life together. I heard that yoga could help with the stress, so I tried it as a last resort.
The voice of your instructor starts to crop up in the strangest places: during a test, during a difficult conversation with someone you love, during times of trauma or exhaustion. You absorb the words deep into your psyche, and your body starts recycling them during times of distress.
Here are a few of the phrases my yoga instructors have said over the years that have been helpful in my journey.
Do Not Judge
Mindfulness meditation is like emotional lucid dreaming: it gives you the ability to step back from powerful emotions and to say, “this is just emotion. This is not reality, and I get to choose how I respond to this pain.” It puts a pause between the voices of anguish and our reaction to them.
Not judging our inner tides of thought and emotion allows us to find the stillness, the cracks between the noise. By letting go of our thoughts, we find sublime quiet. We find ourselves. And it is only when we are most in touch with ourselves that we can have an experience of being close to God.
Respect Your Edge
A central philosophy of yoga is if it hurts too much, back off. This requires a blunt honesty about your health, your physical condition, your own weakness. Most of us are terrified of that honesty.
I have spent my life hiding from my weakness. I am full of macho posturing, trying to look bigger and stronger than I really am. For as long as I can remember, I have been terrified of and frustrated with my weakness: with how easily my character breaks and how quickly I succumb to emotion or pain. Yoga started to challenge my fear of my own limits. Your edge is your breaking point, the place where you lose yourself to pain, to lack of self-control. The edge is the emotional pressure that forces you to drastic, addictive or compulsive measures. The edge is when the body strains and, under more pressure, breaks. Most of us live our lives afraid and ashamed of our edges. We run from them, hide from them, and are terrified of what happens when they are exposed to the world.
Respecting the edge means having compassion on your own weakness. It means not being ashamed of it, knowing that it is not something to hide, but something to work with and embrace. Yoga has forced me to confront my frailties, physical and otherwise. My capacity to break, to be wrong, to be intimidated or overwhelmed – those are not character flaws that need to be swept under the rug. They are precious facets of my humanity, and it is only when I have compassion for them that I can move beyond them.
Flexibility of mind, faith and body.
Last year, a Christian yoga teacher friend of mine said something that I have been pondering ever since; “Flexibility of the body leads to physical health, physical longevity,” she said, “in the same way, spiritual flexibility leads to spiritual health, and mental flexibility leads to greater mental health.”
When the mind stops working – when it stops adapting, making subtle shifts, stops being challenged, and being proven wrong or incomplete in a myriad of ways and therefore forced to grow, it calcifies. When we can no longer grow, shift, be challenged, or be molded, the mind becomes brittle and breaks easily when pressure is applied.
This single tenet has changed my life and faith. It changes how I communicate with people. It changes how I read, write, and do art. It changes how I pray.
When our minds become brittle, we fear the breaking. We fear what happens when we are challenged. Inflexibility is in direct opposition to genuine hospitality: to a true exchange of ideas and authentic compassion for those who are different from us. The only way to keep from calcifying is to discard the myth of arrival: that some day, I will be there. I will have all the answers. I will hit the plateau where I can be everything I can be, understand everything I can understand, be as right as it is possible to be right. Throwing away the myth of arrival leaves only one option left: indefinite flexibility.
In many ways, mindbreak – the breaking of worldview, of thoughts we hold dear – is as inevitable and necessary as heartbreak when it comes to living with real people. I choose to believe, however, that it is also better than the suffocating, lonely prison of inflexibility.