Right before I moved back to L.A. I was so pleased with my yoga practice. Each sequence felt like a fluid, beautiful dance of breath and energy. My body felt strong, my mind calm, and I was finally starting to understand the meaning of softness, stillness and heart-opening. Off the mat, I felt peaceful and serene even amidst a chaotic month-long whirlwind of change and transition. It was as if I had once and for all conquered my restlessness, anxiety and fear. Ahhh. Deep sigh of relief. Check enlightenment off the to-do list and move on with my life.
Wait. Not so fast.
A mere two months later, and most days I feel like I never starting practicing yoga in the first place. My mind drifts easily away from conversations and schoolwork; even deep breathes in chair pose can barely captivate my attention. I react easily and dramatically to ordinary things: traffic, my roommates dirty dishes, tripping as I climb the stairs of the law school when I’m late to class.
For the first time in four years I find myself glancing at the clock during triangle pose, rolling my eyes at the thought of 40 more minutes of “this.” I barely recognize myself. Where is that lively yogi who relished back-to-back vinyasa classes, long intense holds and opportunities to practice ujayi breath in her every day life?
I drag myself to the yoga studio every day hoping for an awakening. Maybe when I wiggle my fingers out of savasana I will be reborn as my former self. Maybe the teacher will say just the thing I need to hear, right in the moment I need to hear it.
I stumble out of the yoga studio feeling defeated and depressed. No awakening. no wisdom. I’ve got nothing but sweaty, frizzy hair and a million criticisms: of the teacher, the practice, even my fellow yogis.
Not surprisingly, this unbalanced version of myself doesn’t wait for me on my mat each day. She goes to class, shops at whole foods and shows up, over and over again, wherever I go in my life. The more present I get to my energetic changes, the more frustrated I feel. I am filled with self-doubt and self-judgment: how can this be happening? I thought I had it all figured out? I had balance, stability, resilience and strength. How could four years of effort and intention disappear so quickly, almost overnight?
For those of us who have spent years measuring our life in achievements, it is a difficult pattern to break. We plan. We work. We get what we want and start the process over again, slowly running down the list of things to do to make our lives seem worthwhile: Finish school. Get the promotion. Find a spouse. Have a baby. Buy a house. We arrive on our yoga mat for the first time the same way arrive everywhere: with a plan (it varies among us and may even change over time). Get fit. Relieve Stress. Attain enlightenment.
But that’s the thing about our yoga practice: It ain’t like that. It refuses to conform. It won’t be confined to a structure, set of rules or steps of progression. It’s the most innovative teacher in the world. It is constantly changing with our environment, experiences and needs. It recognizes where we are by mirroring every aspect of our life. It asks us to recommit to it in every moment. It never rests, and it cannot be accomplished.
Coming to this realization requires rearranging the basic framework that governs my entire life. How can I be so addicted to something that has no defining moment, no pre-determined ladder of ascension, no awards for “best” or “most distinguished”, not even a “most improved?” There is no degree, no finish line and no one else to compete with. It’s just you, your breath and a practice of observation.
The miraculous thing, in spite of all this, is that yoga has had the biggest role in generating actual happiness in my life. All of my achievements can’t do anything to quell anxiety, remove fear and create space and sanity in times of difficulty and distress. In fact, it is often the pressure to “do everything” and “be the best” that creates the stress in the first place. The challenge is not getting attached to the feeling of succeeding at yoga. It is tempting to dwell in self-satisfaction during periods when yoga feels effortless and easy, but it’s a sensation that can quickly transform into disappointment and frustration when we feel insecure and unsteady again. And so it is. Our life, our practice our journey through ups and downs, joy and sadness, love and loss. As one of my teachers frequently reminds us, life is a wave-learn to surf.
Our yoga practice reminds us that happiness and fulfillment cannot be awarded, then framed like a diploma on the office wall (then transported to L.A. and hung up again). These are things that require our constant effort and attention. When we struggle emotionally, spiritually, financially, etc. it is hard to give our attention to anything. It feels like failure. Other times, we struggle less. Our attention is soft and steady. It feels like victory. The challenge is to learn to accept both feelings with the knowledge that neither is permanent, nor defining, maybe not even “real.”
For years I have told people they should do yoga because it has solved everything that is wrong with my life. But the truth is, yoga can’t solve anything. What it has actually done is give me the tools that help me deal with every day issues that make my life more complicated than it needs to be. Acquiring the tools is one thing, using them is another. Since our lives are constantly changing, we are perpetually in need of a new set. It requires patience. It requires faith. It demands that we keep practicing even when it is unappealing, challenging, painful. We must keep showing up, and trying to figure it out.
When my strength and stability return, I know it will not be forever. There is no destination on the spiritual path, only stretches of freedom, clarity and bliss before the traffic backs up again and the tension returns.
For now, I will take one breath at a time. I will try not to reward myself for peace, nor degrade myself in moments of anger and frustration. I will go back to my mat because there are tools to be discovered and lessons to be learned, and L.A. could use a few more deep breaths.