I'd been practicing yoga for fifteen years, and teaching for about twelve, when I found out I was pregnant with my first, my son. His conception was not without its efforts, some of which included acupuncture for a year with the requisite nasty-smelling tea, temperature charts and peeing on sticks, a trip to the Maori healers where my uterus was essentially rolfed by a friendly giant named Papa Joe, and finally, a visit to a fertility doctor who concluded quickly that my estrogen levels were a little low. The first time I went to my mat after my positive pregnancy test, I stood in tadasana, connected to my breath, and thought, "Okay, I have to be gentle, there's someone in here counting on me."
It was as if the sky parted and the gods of compassion, or all that is right with the world, yelled down, "Are you f&%*ing kidding us???!" I was well-versed in the eight limbs of yoga, had been trying in earnest to live in line with the moral and ethical foundation of the practice for well over a decade, had completed a dozen different trainings with well-respected teachers, and attended four different 10-day silent meditation retreats, along with my own daily practice. The idea that it took my pregnancy to wake me up and make me realize I needed to apply these principles of kindness, awareness, and honesty to my own practice was alarming to say the least. I thought, "Wait a minute. What am I saying? Why do I need to remind myself to be gentle when I get on my mat? There's always someone in here counting on me. Me!"
That moment changed the way I practice and the way I teach, and, I think, the way I move through the world. The wonderful meditation teacher Jack Kornfield has a quote: "If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete." I understood that until I learned how to be kind to myself for my own sake, I really wasn't going to "get it."
That moment began the second phase of my own practice, and shifted everything for me. The moral and ethical foundation of the yoga practice is known as the Yama and Niyama. They make up the first of the eight limbs of the practice, and they are known as the "shalls" and "shall nots;" they're like yoga's Golden Rules. The very first one is "ahimsa," or non-harming. I'd been vegetarian for years at this point in an effort to live in line with that idea, and made a daily practice of examining my thoughts, words, and actions, but the quality of my internal dialogue was still brutal. My loud inner critic hadn't quieted down much, and that is where I began. Below are three ways I've noticed that yoga changes your life for the better.
- Yoga gives you the tools and the power to starve a loud inner critic and develop an inner cheerleader instead.
When I'd get on my mat and find it was a day when I was low on energy, or feeling tight, or when the balance wasn't there, I would starve the voice that said, "You suck! Get it together! Work!," and replace that nastiness with a loving voice, one that rooted me on and reminded me that I'm human, and therefore sometimes tired. I was shocked at how often I had to do that, and realized it was an all-day undertaking. If I took a left when I should have taken a right, that unrelenting voice would pipe up and say, "You're such an idiot! You have no sense of direction! How many years are you going to live in LA before you get it together?!" Then I'd shake my head and replace that with, "You grew up in New York City. You never drove regularly until you moved to LA at the age of twenty-nine. Give yourself a break, breathe, and turn around, Chief!" For whatever reason, my loving voice calls me "Chief," "Tiger," or "Sport." These are names I would not like if someone else was addressing me, but they never fail to make me take myself less seriously when I say them inside my own head. You are free to try them out for yourself if you, too, have a loud inner critic, or come up with your own, but I think nicknames help.
- Breathe (Yes, it's that simple!)
There are all kinds of tools we use in the physical practice, and they all relate directly to our lives off the mat if we take them there. For example, the breath is the foundation of the physical practice. "Pranayama" means breath control; we slow down and deepen our inhales and exhales, but in order to do that, we have to pay attention to our breath. The beauty there is that our breathing is always occurring in the present, so if you're noticing your inhales and exhales, you are in the now of your experience. Also, breathing deeply calms the nervous system. The act of becoming aware of your breath and then taking control of it makes you present and calm, and that's something you can do anytime. You can do that while driving, or talking to your partner, children, and friends. You can do that while walking, or sitting in front of your computer. Awareness of breath is like a superpower we just don't use.
Additionally, each pose has a focal point, or "drishti," a place where we direct our gaze. There's a saying: "Where the awareness goes, the energy flows." When you train your eyes on one point, you also focus your mind and your attention. We live in such a fast-paced, crazy world where people try to multi-task all day, but then nothing gets done particularly well. We want connection, but then we show up for lunch with a friend and find we can't focus. Or we set aside two hours for our children, or for our partner, or our passion project, and then find we're checking our Facebook account, or answering texts that really aren't pressing.
Left to its own devices, the mind loves to time travel. It will pull us into our past, often with feelings of longing or regret, or drag us into our futures, frequently with anxiety or fear about events that may never come to pass. We really don't want to live in a constant state of anxiety or depression, but unless you train the mind, it's hard to avoid that. We're also wired to worry. "Negativity bias" is something we've carried forward from those days when we had to be on constant alert so we wouldn't be eaten for lunch by a saber-toothed tiger. We can handle short bursts of stress, like the kind we'd experience if we had to run from said tiger, but we don't do well with prolonged stress. However, we still seem set on focusing on all the things we don't have, and all the things that could go wrong, and now instead of tigers, we worry about money, or our relationships, or all the things we don't have yet that other people do. Stress creates dis-ease in the body. You can raise your blood pressure just by thinking about terrible things that may never happen. Your nervous system does not differentiate between an event that's happening or one that you're creating in your mind. Being able to "pick the mind up" and choose one thought over another is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself. Picking thoughts that are going to strengthen you rather than weaken you is a skill well worth honing.
It can be confusing when you see yoga represented through pictures. It's very hard to photograph a person's process, so you might look on Instagram, and see someone in a bikini on a yacht in Bali with her ankle behind her head and say, "What?!? If that's what yoga is, it doesn't apply to me!" But, yoga is about so much more than the poses. It's about tuning in and facing those places within you where you still have healing to do. It's about developing a breathing practice so you can lean into difficult emotions when they arise, and therefore know yourself. It's about strengthening your intuition, which makes decision-making so much easier. It's about witnessing your reaction to confrontation, and practicing self-compassion, so you can offer compassion to others. Yoga is a way home to yourself, so you can offer up your gifts, and create a life that feels meaningful and fulfilling. There's not a "happiness formula" that works for everyone, but yoga offers each person the ability to find her or his own way, and ultimately, if we want life to feel good, that's a journey we each must take.