I move my body every day. I love to ride my bike, hike in the woods and lift weights. And of course, I do yoga.
As a girl who is happiest in the wild—despite being a certified yoga teacher, sometimes…okay, a lot of the time—it’s hard for me to get on my mat.
For a short while I thought doing yoga outside might be the solution to my problems, but neither my flagstone patio, my lumpy yard or the tick infested woods were conducive to holding postures that are both “steady and comfortable,” as Patanjali defines the ideal pose.
I’ve also often thought: Do we really need to do yoga to be doing yoga? In other words, if I ride my bike mindfully, can that not be yoga? Since the basis of yoga is “yoking” or joining the breath to the movements of the body thus reining in our monkey minds, theoretically, the answer is yes. But for me the reality is, I don’t think so.
There are a few reasons why.
The first is anatomical. When I ride, or hike, or lift, no matter how mindful I am being, I’m not getting the deep twists, inversions, arm balances, back bending and so on that I do on my mat. Granted, not everyone’s yoga practice includes firefly pose or head standing, but no matter what our level, we are undoubtedly asking our bodies to do things in yoga that they don’t do in any other discipline.
When I avoid my mat for a week or so and then I finally get back on it, the realization of how blocked I am is instantaneous. It’s kind of devastating, really. Just a few days without opening my body by focusing on my breath and a beautiful array of movements makes it snap shut like an agitated lobster claw.
And if my body is as tight as an angry langoustine, it’s downright mellow compared to my mind.
There is some kind of magic that transpires as soon as I step on that oblong length of recycled rubber—perhaps it’s just a culmination of the countless moments I have spent there. Like Pavlov’s dog, I am trained to react a certain way, by letting down my guard, slipping into a state of gratitude, and releasing everything but what’s at hand.
The dance of saluting the sun—even when I can’t see the sky—connects me to the infinite in a way that nothing else does.
When I first began practicing yoga over 16 years ago, I did it, like most Americans do, as cross training. I was trying to jolt my body into burning calories more efficiently by surprising it with unfamiliar exercise, per the gym-rat wisdom of the day. (It’s probably still the gym-rat wisdom of today, but I wouldn’t know because I haven’t set foot in a gym since my youngest son stopped needing child care. Oh, if I could reclaim all those senseless hours I spent on the elliptical!)
It took a long time and a lot of personal evolution before I let go of my calorie counting ways and decided that “working out” is the least of what I’m doing when I exercise. When I finally understood the complexity of what happens when we honor our bodies with conscious movement, I was ready to practice “real” yoga.
(Well, my calorie counting yoga was “real,” because it set me on the path toward a deeper practice, but it wasn’t, let’s say, fully realized.)
I will always struggle to choose yoga over the seductive beauty of nature, and on really beautiful days—particularly on those when there is what we in my family call “Swiss weather” (Kodachrome blue skies, zero humidity, low 70s, everything looks like it’s been adjusted with an x-pro filter)—I will consistently pick a walk or a cycle over my practice. But I will never completely abandon the mat.
There is so much life to be lived and healing to be done on that humble black rectangle. Even if all I manage to do is sit and breathe, I am still letting in light that no Swiss sun could ever outshine.
Author: Erica Leibrandt
Editor: Travis May