A Complicated Marriage Between Spirituality and Fitness
I’ve grown up with an awareness of yoga over the course of my whole life. Attributed to my Indian heritage, yoga has always presented itself in a strongly spiritual sense, and while the physicality of it is quite obvious, it was not the main feature of the practice in my mind. As fitness trends in the United States have continued to evolve, I’ve watched this practice popularize into what I can only describe as derivative.
Any interest I ever had of practicing Yoga in this country became very paralyzing because I felt indecisive about it. I wanted to be a yogini. I really did. But something about the modern practice felt cheap. The instructors teaching these courses weren’t spiritually enlightened enough for me to find any credibility in their words. I’d turn to those people next to me who were really in the depths of it and found that I felt like a crazy person. “How do they not see it?” I’d ask myself. Something felt really inauthentic about the instruction, and I struggled with wanting to fit in with this community of people while also feeling completely enraged with the falsehood of spirituality that they were selling to people. Spirituality must be earned, not bought. It must be respected, not sold. Was this cultural misappropriation? Was this what spirituality looked like for my generation? Fold your hands together and pronounce ‘Namaste’ incorrectly, buy some cool t-shirts with Indian art and tell people you’re really into Yoga. And then live a totally selfish lifestyle, and try to sleep with your students in class. That’s the vibe I was getting in these classes.
Was I being a purist? Was I unreasonable in my desire for being taught by someone who both understood and lived the truth of what they were actually teaching? I began to really understood how connected I was to my own spirituality. It was a light bulb moment for me to see for the first time that I could be my own spiritual teacher.
Relief washed over me as I continued to flesh out this concept. I recognized that the source of my discomfort stemmed from a habit I have of putting my teachers on pedestals. They would fall off of those pedestals, and I’d feel disappointed. After deconstructing the whole process, I ultimately came to the conclusion that I don’t have to buy into the lifestyle they are selling, but I can spend my money to learn how to better affect my body and ready it for change. I am responsible for my own spirituality. I am responsible for my own divinity. And I can be my own teacher.
And thus, the world opened up to me a bit wider.
A Graceful Relationship Between My Body and My Mind
Earlier this week, I was invited to attend a Warm Yoga class with two friends – one of whom happens to be a yoga instructor whom I both respect and admire. If Felicia tells me something is ‘awesome’, I believe her.
Full disclosure: I’ve always had some preconceived notions on what a Warm Yoga class would be like, most of which centered around it being on the gimmicky, aggressive side with minimal benefit. I’m not especially fond of aggressive physical practices in general because they tend to be competitive in nature, and the last thing I want is to be in a room with a bunch of people trying to prove how much better they are than the person next to them.
I’m very happy to say that I was wrong.
Yoga has a lot of hype around it and from the perspective of an outsider; it can be really annoying to listen to if you haven’t practiced it that much. Given some of my physical ailments, I knew that it would really accelerate the healing that I’ve been inviting for my body and that is the main reason I opted to try it.
The Set Up
The room was heated somewhere between 88° F and 100° F. On the second floor of the yoga studio between mirrors on all walls were students settling into their spaces. It’s an understatement to say that space was limited – apparently this is the most popular yoga class.
One of the things I’ve grown to appreciate about myself is that it’s important for me to stay grounded. So often in life, we believe that in order to feel strong, we must be stoic – and my body has suffered because of all of that stoic energy. There is real strength in vulnerability, too. I positioned myself between my two friends, Felicia and Sarah, so as to ensure that no matter which direction I was facing, there was someone who was energetically supportive and encouraging to me. It’s nice to be able to ‘energetically’ commiserate with someone when you’re in a challenging pose. Plus, they were both very experienced so I could model myself after them without any of fear of judgment if I ‘messed up’.
I used a beach towel over my yoga mat at Felicia’s suggestion, and that really helped to both absorb the sweat and stabilize me in different poses. The room was very warm, and I wore tight fitting spandex workout pants and a tank top that wouldn’t chaff once I began to sweat. I had a bottle of water and Felicia brought over two blocks I could rely on for stability if I needed them. I pulled my hair back in a loose but secure bun, and wore a rubber headband to keep my hair out of my face. The lights were moderately dim. I overheard someone mention the length of the class: seventy-five minutes. Men and women were flexing their bodies and touching their toes. I could feel my anxiety burrow in.
I can’t touch my toes. Crap.
Transitioning Between Comfort and Discomfort
As I was moving in and out of different poses, particularly those poses that I was not comfortable doing, I noticed there were moments when I felt like a failure. The ‘Who am I kidding’ feeling actually found a home in me on the drive over to the studio.
With every segment of a few minutes, I found myself feeling differently about what I was doing.
Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe I shouldn’t have come.
Wow, I’m doing this! I’m really doing this!
God. Is it over yet?
Whoa, I didn’t realize I could do this better on one side of my body than the other. I wonder what that means…
Yep, this is how I die. I’m going to die.
This feels incredible.
Over the course of seventy-five minutes, I had to sit with these feelings of anxiety and find a way to bring them with me as I shifted to a place of belonging.
I don’t have to be as a good as everyone else here.
I can allow myself to take a break!
I can allow myself to do something that’s aggressive for me if I want to.
I was the one setting the tone, and deciding when to take a rest. I was in control. It’s a practice in which you really do have total control over what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. And even why you’re doing it. I considered how I was relinquishing the obligations of my life and giving way to such a freeing level of intensity. How often do I let that happen? This was special.
When the sweat first started to escape my body so early on, I began to panic a bit.
How much worse is this going to get?
But after a while, it felt cathartic. It felt like release. Whenever I felt a little sick, or dizzy, I paused, and took a break, or I modified the pose. There was a lot of give and take.
I am a trooper.
I start off holding close the fear that I can’t handle things, but the truth is that I can handle them. And somehow, I’m always surprised when I handle them. So if I just continue to hold on to this truth not just through yoga poses but also through my own life – how much more grace would I have?
An Awakening Mind
Over these seventy-five minutes, as I moved in an out of each pose, transitioning through the different phases of progress and struggle, I felt an overwhelming sense that what I was doing with my body was actually a mirror of the way events transpire in my own life. In those particular moments, you are going through this process where you are actively communicating with yourself in order to determine what you’re going to do next. To look around you, you’d see the different people with different skill levels. There’s a part in each of us measuring ourselves up against those people around us.
We either spend that time trying to match ourselves up to what everyone else is doing even when it feels uncomfortable and painful because we may not be ready and it may not be meant for our bodies – OR – we stay present in the moment, and we recognize that we were given this body for a specific reason, and there’s something that this body – our body – is going to share with us and show us and walk us through that we couldn’t experience if we had anyone else’s body, anyone else’s flexibility, anyone else’s strength. You have your own level of flexibility, strength, and grace. And it’s in using those three elements together, where it’s completely based on you and what you’re bringing, that unlocks the process. It becomes a full body and mind practice.
Evolution of Thinking
I’m not at the level of flexibility I’d like to be, I’m not at the level of strength I’d like to be, nor am I the shape I’d like to be. I don’t have the modern commercialized Yoga Body but what I’m learning is that every body is a yoga body.
Yoga is not so much about looking good in spandex. It is about changing the filter through which you perceive the world. So it’s not so much about how YOU look as it is about how everything else looks to you. So really, you’re not just exercising your body, you’re exercising your perspective on the world; on your world, your environment, your relationships, your triggers, and your grief.
It’s not necessarily about you if can touch your toes, or arch your back so that your feet are comfortably behind your head. It’s about the process that takes place as you’re allowing yourself to feel both discomfort and comfort in the same moment – which is very much what being alive is like. It’s a practice of being alive.
Overall, it was challenging, yes. Physically speaking, it was challenging for me because I am working on developing my health practices and I’m not yet where I want to be. But I found that the heat really helped to create some added flexibility and I generally enjoy warmer temperatures because I’m usually cold. I had no idea I could sweat so much! And believe me, you do sweat. It really was an enlightening experience and I will be doing it again. I walked out feeling different than I had when I walked in, and in a very good way.
There is real benefit to this practice, and like most rewarding things in life, it can be challenging. Those rewards, however, don’t just find you once you’re finished and walking out the door. It takes place as you’re practicing, rewarding you as you’re doing it. The rewards find you when you are meeting your own resistance head on, and recognizing that, poetically, you are your own resistance. You’re basically having a dialogue with yourself through the whole process. And how often in a day do we really have good, meaningful dialogue with ourselves? This is a practice that if you were trying to get to know your wants, your needs, your desires, your wishes, your fears, your hopes, your dreams; you are provided with an opportunity to really connect with yourself.
Does it sound a bit hokey? Maybe. But it’s bigger than that. If you come to this practice open, interested, curious, and even just the slightest bit enthusiastic, you will get something out of it.
And this is coming from someone who can’t touch her toes yet. Yet.