When I stepped onto a yoga mat in a class for the very first time, I realized almost immediately (thanks forever to my amazing first teacher Phil) that it was not going to be about exercise at all for me. Yoga for me was a lesson in mindfulness. Yoga was about being aware: aware of my breath in relation to my body, aware of my body in relation to space, aware of my thoughts in relation to my Self. It was all about awareness.
Slowly, through dedicated practice, I continue to become more mindful and more aware. Slowly, things that don’t serve me are falling away, and new things that do serve me are coming to be. It is a constant flow of change and growth.
The other day I was standing on my mat in the empty yoga studio with my iPod playing, preparing myself to teach a class. I took a couple of deep breaths in and out. Then I inhaled my arms up overhead, and exhaled myself down to a forward fold. This allows me to connect my breath and my movements, clear my mind, and start a rhythm. It is a movement that I have taken literally thousands of times; hundreds of times in one day when we in teacher training.
Inhale my arms up, exhale to forward fold. Inhale my arms up, exhale to forward fold. I do this every morning to wake myself up and get ready for my day. I do it at random times during the day to get my blood flowing and energize myself. I do it when I am stressed to connect to my breath and calm myself down. It is like an old friend, a ritual, practically habitual. It is almost as natural to me as breathing itself.
But as I did it this morning, I suddenly thought that I had been doing it wrong all along. I decided to be more mindful of it. I began to pretend that there were weights in my hands. I pretended that I had to exert real force to bring my arms up. Pretending that I had to exercise real control to bring my arms down to my sides slowly, instead of just floating them down. Energy on the way up. Control on the way down. As if the air were thick and I had to force my way through. Suddenly, every muscle in my arms became engaged, began to work. Suddenly, everything was different. My moves were purposeful, deliberate, determined, emphatic, and effective.
I continued practicing, doing a few Sun Salutations to warm up my body and clear my head before class. Keeping my new idea in mind. When I taught I mentioned it. I’m not sure what I said exactly, because I have out of body experiences when I teach. I am present in the moment and the words come out, but then moment passes, and they are gone from my head. But I think I said something about fighting against the air and engaging all of the muscles in the arms. I briefly mentioned that I realized I had been doing this wrong all along. I had not been engaged. I was there, I was moving, but I was not actively engaged. I remember saying something in passing about the mat being like life.
This simple realization has stayed with me all week. When I taught on Friday night, I mentioned this idea again. When you raise and lower your arms, pretend there are weights in your hands offering resistance. Activate every muscle. Engage every muscle. Really be there, and really feel it.
It is a simple idea. Activate and engage. Teachers have been telling me this in one way or another over the last few years. But I guess I didn’t really hear it. It never quite clicked in my head. I wasn’t really doing it wrong. I was just doing it the way I was doing it at the time. But on this day, something inside of me shifted. I realized that the way I was doing it was not serving my intention. I realized that in order to be true to myself, to be true to my practice, I had to do it this new way.
Now that I have had this new thought, just being there and just going though the motions is not enough. Now that I have this new mindset, in order to honor my practice, I must be fully and actively engaged. I have to take this and transfer it to every pose. I have to be purposeful, deliberate, effective, in every pose.
After this new idea is transferred to every pose, it will be taken off of the mat. It will come with me out into my life. I will ask myself this question in each thing I do off of the mat. Am I fully and actively engaged in this moment, in this aspect of my life? Am I being purposeful, deliberate, effective?
(And this is where it happens…the transfer from the mat to real life…)
Holy Crap! Is that my life speaking to me? How often am I just going through the motions? Just moving through the day in my routine ways? Doing what I have to do and then being done with it, all the while thinking of other things? Not actively engaged. Not present in the moment. Not fully involved. Not receiving the full benefit. Not putting forth my best effort.
Suddenly, everything was different. Another epiphany on my yoga mat! I have had more epiphanies on my mat than anywhere else in my life. Sometimes they are earth shattering, and life changing. Sometimes they are simple things, like this. Things that I probably already knew, but just never really stopped to think about, never slowed down long enough to be mindful of.
But now I am mindful of this behavior: this lifting and lowering of my arms in a half- assed way, this possibility of doing other things in my life in that same half-assed way. Now that I know it, I can’t go back to un-knowing it (dammit!).
Epiphanies are like Elephants that way. I just can’t ignore them anymore.