July 7, 2022

Living Yoga Off the Mat.

Time and time again, my yoga practice has transformed me.

From the first time I stepped on my yoga mat in high school and hated the way it highlighted the inflexibility of my hamstrings, to the time I went to a class on a whim in college, fell in love with moving my body in a harmonious way, and was mesmerized by the teacher. There was simply something about her that resonated deeply within me: “I want to be like her,” I thought.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and I was in a relationship strewn with red flags. Yoga was the only thing that soothed my nerves and gave my gnawing anxiety a break. I found myself in an abusive relationship.

Where did I connect with my inner strength? Where did I hear God’s voice clearly again for the first time in years? Where did I have the realization that this practice was not just for me, but for me to share with others? Where was I when I realized the mess my life had turned into, and how to pivot?

All on my mat.

It was lying in savasana that I found the deep rest my life up until that point hadn’t provided. Something about the irresistible combination of a whiff of my yoga mat in chattaranga dandasana and burning Nag Champa in the studio lobby awakened my senses to more that yoga offers. Or maybe it was the refreshingly cold and very welcomed damp lavender-scented washcloth draped on my temples at the end of a sweaty class.

It was in an instant of wanting desperately to give up and break posture, soaked tank top clinging to my back, that I deepened into the pose and surrendered to my practice—and higher parts of myself—instead.

There was something about the way that Sanskrit flowed off of the instructor’s tongue that unlocked in me a desire I’d held all along but had never acknowledged: “Go to India. Study from the source.”

By the time I could justify that, I’d already completed one teacher training and had been teaching for some time. I’d gone back to school to finish the bachelor’s degree I’d put on hold when I got divorced and was graduating with an International Affairs major. I’d made the focus of my degree the global effects of human trafficking and trauma and had learned in that time that helping people heal from trauma on an individual basis was more of my calling.

I packed my bags and headed to Rishikesh, India for an intensive 500-hour teacher training, which would last for two months. It cost all of my savings, and the massive lessons I learned about life and myself were worth every cent. Upon leaving for my trip, I told God that was I tired of my own bullsh*t, and ready for the next level of myself.

Sure enough, India sifted out every ounce of bullsh*t still left in me. Through lots and lots of yoga and study, days starting with the 5 a.m. morning bell and ending at 8 p.m. after Satsang, there wasn’t a whole lot of time for me to dwell on my own nonsense. The high school dynamics among the students (which mostly consisted of nomadic 20-somethings from all over the world, and a handful of lush middle-aged Americans searching for their souls), distinctly clashed with the school’s leadership of gurus and spiritual teachers—some self-proclaimed, some incredibly legit.

The pain and suffering that can only exist in a place like India, strikingly contrasted against the awe-inspiring beauty that also can only exist in a place like India. It was there that I gained understanding that where there is vast darkness, there truly is even greater light.

I experienced a horrific parasite infection that brought me the closest to death I’ve ever been, was stolen from by a Finnish roommate, and got an injury from a bad adjustment in Ashtanga class that took years to fully heal.

I also cold plunged in the Ganges, walked the streets during Holi, learned some Hindi and how to prepare my favorite Indian dishes, worked with an amazing team of Ayurvedic doctors, met my best friend who lives in Switzerland, jumped on the back of a scooty for a ride out of town with my younger teachers, got a beautiful tattoo and pierced my nose, and had a life-changing trip that taught me more about yoga off-the-mat than on it. And of course, I learned authentic on-the-mat yoga, from pranayama, to asana, to meditation, and philosophy in the context of its origin.

My trip was filled to the brim with enlightening experience after enlightening experience—whether painful or delightful. By the time my last day rolled around, I’d had the mountaintop experience of meeting that next level of myself. I’d tasted what else God had to offer me, and deeply felt that I had conquered the necessary to get me here.

Yoga led me to my curiosity about healing trauma—both my own and the world’s. Then it was yoga that illuminated my ego and reminded me that my biggest impact happens when I conquer the shadows that exist within me, not try to fix everything and everyone around me.

Half of my life since first stepping on my mat, and five years since my time in India, it is not asana that is now the focus of my practice. It is seva and cultivating sattva. It is getting quiet when my world is too loud. It is finding my own inner equilibrium and connecting to the place where the Divine lives within me. It is the yamas and niyamas—a whole lot of purifying my own thoughts and actions, and keeping my body and mind a temple for my spirit.

Now my yoga is learning how to regulate my nervous system through my breath (pranayama) and reevaluate what I’ve allowed to take the front seat in my life through my senses (pratyahara). My yoga has become the cultivation of narrow focus on that which feels grounding (dharana), awareness of the Divine as meditation in God’s presence (dhyana), and ultimately experiencing moments of bliss, freedom, and joy through that portal (samadhi).

Sometimes on but mostly off my mat.

I am full of gratitude for this practice and for all of the teachers and lessons that have infused it into my life. I cannot imagine my life if I’d never stepped on my yoga mat, nor if I’d allowed my yoga to stay on it.

Om Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah.

May all be happy. May all be free from illness. May all see what is auspicious. May no one suffer.

~

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