I wrote an article a few years ago for my yoga studio as a participant in their 40 Days of Yoga Challenge. I thought you might enjoy this exploration of faith, hope and the yearning for change.
What brings me to my yoga mat? What brings you to yours? Why do we do yoga, anyway?
On a physical level, I come to yoga to care for my body – to unwind tight hips from sitting in front of a computer, to stretch, to breathe, to let go of physical tension (I had no idea how much tension I habitually carried in my body until I began practicing yoga!) To grow my strength. To become more flexible, so that I may bend, and flow.
But more than unwinding the tension in my body, I come to yoga to unwind the tension in my heart. Before yoga, I had no idea how much tension I habitually carried – the tension of expectations, judgments, blame, guilt, resentment, anxiety, control .
I come so that I may bend, and not break, in the face of whatever challenges life brings that day. I come to yoga to grow my strength of heart, my courage, to open to life in whatever form it flows through me.
It is this intention that brings me to the mat when I don’t feel like it – when I feel tired or sleepy or sore.
It’s also this deeper desire that brings me to yoga when I’m feeling fragile, or tender – when the idea of showing up to class – where I’ll know the tears will flow – feels like walking around without skin.
I come anyway.
Breathe new life in me
Yoga is my refuge. In the beginning of class, as the teachers go around the room and ask each of us how we’re feeling and if there’s anything we’re needing in our practice, I often want to cry out, “I want to come home. Help me come home.”
Yoga is my prayer: “Breathe new life in me.” Breathe new life in me so that I may be kinder, so that my habits of acting out of fear, of jumping to conclusions, of lashing out in irritation may be softened .
Perhaps what I’m really saying is this: “May I shed what is not mine. May I reclaim what is. May I be transformed.”
Riding the breath to get there
That’s the kicker. We come to yoga not just to “do” yoga or to strengthen our core or to have some company while we sweat, but to grow. By its very nature, every time we walk through the yoga studio we’re saying: May I leave differently than how I arrived. May I have the courage to let go. May I be changed.
And so as poet Danna Faulds writes, we “ride the breath to get there.”
The real reason I came to yoga is not so that my body may be transformed, but so that my heart may be. The fact that my body comes along for the ride feels like both a nice side bonus and a necessary conduit – how fitting that these lessons of opening, acceptance, of self compassion come through the physical form.
As a woman who struggled for over two decades with just about every imaginable form of an eating disorder – a time during which my relationship with my physical body was filled with self disgust, self judgment, and self hatred – the fact that I can learn self love, self acceptance, and self compassion while exercising my physical body feels like a wink from the Divine.
Growing a bigger heart
The poses may be painful at times (or “intense” as my teachers like to say.) They are often joyful and playful. I certainly laugh a lot.
But the muscle I stretch the most – and the place where I feel the greatest joy – is my heart muscle. This is the true gift of yoga: growing a bigger heart.
It is not easy. To grow the heart is to feel the accompanying growing pains. It entails dropping our armor, the tight constrictions. This unshielding increases both the capacity to experience joy and the capacity to experience hurt. Do we dare?
Our too small shoes
Growth is a shedding, a releasing of outdated beliefs and mindsets that are not true – for many of us, mindsets that we’ve unconsciously carried since we were very young. These old ways of being have reinforced themselves in our daily habits, and as Annie Dillard wrote, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”
How do I want to spend my life? I certainly don’t want to spend my life contracted in fear, judgment and control. And yet despite how painful it feels to be caught in these forces, it’s a source of humility and amusement how much my mind likes to go there, to judge, contract, control and fear – how much it slides downstream and does what it’s always done.
Jung said we all walk around in “shoes that are too small for us.” So voluntarily putting ourselves in the hot seat of transformation means being willing to grow up – to grow bigger shoes, and, therefore, to change our very definitions of ourselves.
The ‘you can’t handle this voice’
The too small shoes that I’ve worn throughout my life have said this: You can’t handle this. You’re not capable. You’re too sensitive. You’re too fragile. You’re a flawed mess. You’re too much. (Just who do you think you are?) You’re not enough. And worse: you’re unworthy.
I’ve worked a lot with those messages, for decades. I’ve gone to therapy, cultivated a meditation practice, learned spiritual practices – and, yes, I’ve practiced yoga. The shoes grew a bit, and yet still pinched.
Last summer, I went walking with a friend. As I shared some recent difficulties in my life, we spoke about the spiritual practices that nourish us through these dark nights of the soul. She reminded me that transformation is often the fruit of a committed practice.
And ah – I got it. If I wanted to see changes in my life, I needed to practice.
During this time, I was writing a course on compassionate habit change – the irony is quite funny! – and I was also hearing about The 40 Days of Yoga challenge. I wondered if my pattern of panic when life got hard was just that: a habit. And if it was a habit, could it change?
The kernel of hope
So, I made a commitment to a daily meditation and yoga practice. I also started a ritual of beginning my day by lighting three candles and handing over my three greatest worries to the Divine.
I tried even when the day went all sideways – maybe that day my meditation was only 45 seconds long, breathing in traffic, or the yoga consisted of child’s pose on my bathroom floor. Maybe the candles got lit at the end of the day before bed.
I often forgot everything I was learning and ended up doing the very things I was trying to change. (Ah, humility.) This was my opportunity to practice mercy when I couldn’t meet my own expectations – to soften my expectations and to keep showing up.
So I showed up. And I showed up. And in showing up, I watered this seed, this kernel of hope – can I really change? – and it grew.
Growing new shoes
I admit to feeling a bit astonished – probably no different than the wonder my 5 year old felt when the seeds he’d planted in the garden sprouted into full grown carrots several months later.
Slowly I’ve been growing new shoes. It helps to tell myself, “You can handle this” – what I whisper in my own ear when I’m holding warrior two for what seems like forever and my thighs are aching, or when my children are shouting and pushing all my buttons and I want to shout back.
When I feel alone and separate, or full of shame, the voice that rises up is, “I’m with you always. You’re never alone.” When panic pushes my anxiety buttons, I like using Rick Hanson’s phrase, “I’m alright right now.”
I breathe and I breathe and I come home. This makes me feel hopeful – for all of us.
Our willingness to be changed
The hardest part of this journey for me was a bit of paradox: that while I had a clear intention of what I wanted to change I also had to let go of how I expected that change to occur – or even what it looked like.
As someone who’s had a long, long love affair with control – and a fixation on results – letting go of results was a wrestling match. My mind would say, “I want it to look like this,” and my soul would reply with, “I know. Let go.”
My journey through habit change has taught me this: that my job is to show up. To come to the mat. To come willing to grow and change. To come with a soft heart and an open mind. That’s my part.
And the part that I let go – the transformation process itself – is what I hand over to the Divine Mystery, and to the growth process itself.
The friendly forces
Can I show up – not because it will guarantee a certain result – but simply because it’s a kind thing to do for myself? Can I show up just because – even on the days when it feels like nothing’s working – especially on the days when it feels like nothing’s working?
I come to yoga – to habit change – as an act of faith. If I keep showing up – doing my part – then life and love will meet me there. Rilke once wrote that “in the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.” I believe the hands that work on us are kind.
That is my faith. And that is what feeds my commitment.
May I rest in those hands. May we all.