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How yoga sneaks up on you

IMG_4269I lift my heel and flex my toes in high lunge, and feel every part of my foot flicker to life.

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I roll down into forward fold and I flash through an inner dialogue of hips taut, hamstrings tight, feet turned in a little too much, fibrous muscle catching over my left knee, piriformis sore, toes further away than last week.

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I sit in dandasana and feel hips, thighs, spin, neck race into position, work to constellate into an upright, strong posture.

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I sit in hero pose at the beginning of a class, legs tucked under, looking like I am doing NOTHING, and my quads fire into agitated life, screaming to be released.  At the end of class, I sit as comfortably in this pose as in a chair.

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I balance in warrior three, feel my leg root, glide forward in complete equilibrium.

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I’ve been doing yoga at least once a week for more than 20 years now.  These poses are “easy” asanas — but I was reflecting in my class on Monday that I experience them fresh every time.  I discover my toes anew every time I step on the mat, am present to these little bits of my body that work for me all day, every day, but which I never really feel or pay attention to until I’m directly engaging them.  I feel like different parts of my body literally greet me when I fold, stretch, balance — hello calves!  hello arthritic big toe! hello side-twisty bit!

At the same time, I experience the poses as familiar, attached to a story — “oh, interesting, I’m so much stronger and deeper in chair pose than I was six months ago” — and as completely new — “how do I fold in suryanamaskar A in a way so it really feels like a flow?  how do I curl over my toes from upward dog to downward dog in a smooth motion?”  I’ve literally done 1000s of sun salutations in my yoga life — but every one has its own life to it, its own story, is a new question.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who was contemplating going to her first yoga class ever, and she was reluctant because she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to follow it, wouldn’t be able to “do” it.  I found myself quite passionately describing my experience of yoga as “never easy,” that there is no “right” way to do it, and that good yoga classes are always about never comparing, about going deep inside your own possibilities, being okay with the fact that you have been doing yoga for 20 years and still cannot do some of the things that other people can do easily.  For me this is getting my heels down in downward dog, doing Utthita Hasta Padangustasana without falling (grabbing my big toe with one hand and extending my leg out straight while balancing on other leg), comfortably doing eagle pose.  I have done these poses 100s of times, and they are a new, imperfect challenge every time.  As I said to my friend, “the joy of yoga is that there is simultaneously no failing and it’s all failing — it is never perfect.”

Other people doing variations on a pose my massage therapist tells me to do and which continues to elude me.

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My meditation teacher Jeff Warren once said that yoga is a “spiritual trojan horse” — that many people start doing yoga for fitness or stress reduction, and then find themselves “deliciously, inexorably, sometimes alarmingly – moving along a course of spiritual development they never expected.”

That has been my experience with yoga.  Not in a namaste and sanskrit tattoo kind of way — I have strong feelings about the cultural appropriation side of yoga.  But I do know that a guided meditation during shivasana back in 1996 was the first time I really experienced the connection between my body and a deep felt sense of “mystery” — the first time I had a somatic experience of my self and all of its yearnings for meaning.  Over time, I’ve developed language for these yearnings, journeyed through meditation, reflection, solo pilgrimages, all the “work” to face my demons and look as unflinchingly as possible at what it means to be a present, emotionally honest, flawed, vulnerable human, capable both simultaneously of inflicting harm, of weaving golden connections, of great generosity.

Yes, yoga is a way to keep my aging body more supple, to build strength and agility in the muscles and connective tissues that get worn and frayed through daily life, through sitting, through running and cycling and walking in the wrong shoes.  Anyone who thinks it’s “not real exercise” is misguided — I rarely go to hot yoga, but I always need a shower after a class.  It’s physical WORK.

But there is also a meta-experience of that physical work that always brings me back to the mat.  Yoga is lesson after lesson.

On the mat, I do the same kind of observation and noting of what is happening in that very moment that I seek in meditation — the unexpected stubbing of my toe as I hop back to the front of my mat, the ease and depth of triangle, the three breath limit for full bridge pose.  Presence reveals an endless flow of news, slows me down.

Every time I do handstand, I have a moment of hesitation, a prick of fear about turning myself upside down.  That flicker of hesitation is a continual re-engagement with my own courage, with the intertwining of self-aware strength and vulnerability to strive for in my entire life.

On the mat, I am often simultaneously deeply engaged and deeply bored, fully immersed in what I am doing and impatient at the same time, resisting checking my watch.  This is my monkey mind life, unable to stay still.  Yoga shows me this tendency, cautions me about it, reminds me that it just gets worse.

On the mat, I sometimes feel the deep vulnerability — the sadness, the hope, the loss, the fear — that is squelched in real life.  I am reminded to listen.

Every time I fall out of a pose, or can’t reach for something I’m aiming for, I’m reminded about letting go of attachment, of not taking what’s in front of me for granted.  This has helped me through losses and irritations, reinforced my gratitude for my body’s changing strength and agility as I age.

More than anything, yoga reinforces “beginner’s mind” for me.  Every time I’m on the mat, I discover what is true for me that day — can I hold a pose longer, or bend further, or is there restriction?  Can I hold that multi-stage balancing posture, or am I going to tip?  I am never the same yogi from one session to the next. It’s grounding and it’s freeing.  It’s a reminder that I can fail in one moment and there will always be another posture, I can succeed one moment and not have the same experience next time, I can be triumphant — see my handstand! — and I can be humbled — see me suddenly unable to reach my toes in a simple forward fold on a stiff day!  I am human and I am present to that human-ness.

When I learn these things on the mat, I learn them in my body.  When I manage to hold onto the wisdom off the mat, I am a better human.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who blogs here the second Friday and third Saturday of every month, and other times she needs to say something out loud.

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