One year of yoga.
I reached that personal milestone recently and I’ve been reflecting on what that means to me.
I took my first yoga class in August 2020. I was angry all the time. Angry at the world. At the political climate in the United States. Tired of fighting with people on Twitter and exhausted from the emotional toll of being a parent through remote school, canceled prom and high school graduation, and the stress of shipping my oldest child off to college in the midst of a pandemic.
I was angry from trying to convince my loved ones not to vote for Trump, from trying to find peace with the idea that they were going to vote for him anyway.
One of my dearest friends, my sister-in-law, had terminal cancer. I am a person who, all my life has tended toward happiness and I was breathing so much fire and fury in the summer of 2020 that I couldn’t recognize myself some days.
I took a yoga class on a whim. Because I needed help and I didn’t know what else to try. And I came home sweaty and confused and aching, but I wanted to go back next time. I went back the next day. And the next. And the next. And then I bought a membership.
I thought it was about the poses. About trying to keep up in class and about that challenge. But that wasn’t what was working on me: it was the breathing. The pranayama. The breathwork. The classes where I actually focused on my breathing, as my instructors were cuing, were the ones where I left feeling more sewn together. Less toxic.
The classes where I focused on really trying to nail the hard poses or keep pace with the class didn’t settle my mind. I took hatha classes, vinyasa classes, yin classes, flexibility classes, and restorative yoga classes. It took me a few months until I hit on the realization that the poses were something to focus on, while I was breathing, but that the entire point, for me, was in what was happening with my breath. If I could learn to control my breathing and focus on it, I could learn to feel my anger and let it be a part of me without consuming me. I could watch it sweep my house clean at times, and then take a deep breath and steady my heart for what would come next. I was learning to see my anger as storm clouds that blew through my heart.
I needed to stop trying so hard to nail half moon pose. Stop being angry at myself for not being able to do a headstand. Stop caring at all about what anyone else was able to do or even if my teacher was watching. Close my eyes more. Notice the light in the room more and how it changes at different times of the day. Be more still. Let go of the focus on the poses. Find a drishti and breathe. Let what happens, happen.
This mind shift was a game changer for me. I did end up, over the course of a year, getting better at some poses, of course, but it’s more important to me that I got better at breathing.
And 2020 (and 2021) was a stormy year, certainly. But my yoga practice, first at the studio and then also at home, taught me that those storms would not destroy me.
The world lost Ruth Bader Ginsburg in October 2020 and I lost my sister-in-law to cancer a few short months later.
I’m grateful that I had a practice at that time. My grief was another storm that swirled around me over and over again. But I kept breathing. Focusing on the pose or on the sound of my breath. I rode it out, let it sweep through me. I often cried during savasana, when my body was wrung of energy and my mind hollowed out to make space.
Grief walked in and sat down with me often. I took a meditation class in early 2021 and that helped me learn more about breathing and going deeper to pull away from my anger and my grief. Repeating the mantra in my head gave me a tether in my breath practice, when my mind began to travel or when grief stopped by to sit with me. I could endure it. Breathe through it. Know it would pass. I could leave the anger alone. I could let the grief blow through me, focus on my breath, my mantra, and on the pose. On this moment in time.
In class, we are often asked to think of something we are grateful for and to hold it in our minds. In those moments I am often thankful for the healing that my yoga practice brought into my life during the first year of my practice. That one year of yoga changed my heart and mind when I needed it the most.
It’s poignant for me that in the time of COVID-19, in the time of a disease that renders it ultimately impossible to breathe, I am grateful every day in my practice for the ability to breathe in and breathe out slowly.
It helped me find my way out of anger. It helped me find myself again.
I look forward to learning what yoga will teach me in my second year.