Mindful? Or Mind Full?
Last week in this column, I wrote about yoga as movement, and the importance of moving your body in a modern life that has us stuck in a chair, slumped on a couch and staring at a screen. When asked, “What is yoga?” you might think about stretching, or holding a familiar yoga posture, or bending into an uncomfortable position – moving your body in ways or positions you may not think of as natural.
As I wrote about the “movement” of yoga I could, almost instantly, feel the collective sighs and eye-rolling from yoga teachers everywhere. What about the meditation? What, no mention of the breath? The stillness? What are we doing here, just jumping around on a mat?
What is the difference between exercise and yoga? What is the difference between twisting yourself into a shape and busting through your favorite spin class? The difference is this: Exercise happens in movement. Yoga happens in stillness. Yoga is what happens when your effort becomes still. Yoga is what happens when the power of the body meets the power of the mind.
The hidden gem of yoga is the mind. We start where we are, using the strength we have, to stretch and to improve circulation. We use the physical postures to improve our strength, normalize our blood pressure and heal our backs. This is how yoga works, from the most gentle forms to the most athletic. When the physical body improves, you can turn your attention to even more important things. After all, it’s hard to love your neighbor when your back hurts. It’s hard to be patient with your kids when your muscles are in spasm. It’s hard to save the polar bears when your sciatic nerve is on fire.
As my family and I sit around the living room talking about this article, and banter about what comes next, I hear my mother call out from the kitchen: “It’s mind over matter, dummy!” There is nothing like weekends at Mom and Dad’s house to keep the yoga simple.
Let’s say you practice yoga often, perhaps quite vigorously, for years. You head off to the Berkshires for a long-awaited weekend retreat. You glide through the yoga classes, pose after pose, with others who do the same. You are relaxed, rejuvenated. You are strong, calm and at peace. Then, on Sunday, you head home. The Mass Pike is packed with cars, you find yourself stuck in traffic. It is a hot summer afternoon, and your air conditioning is broken. You realize you’ve left your phone at the ashram, and have neglected to prepare for an important meeting the next morning. You get home, and your kids are cranky and sick. Your spouse is complaining about what a hard weekend it was while you were gone. Where is your yoga now?
It is still there, my friends. We find those moments in every day, right inside the chaos and noise of everyday life. Sometimes it’s even easy.
A mother, after a trying day of kid-wrangling and sleep deprivation, finds it in the pure joy of that same child sleeping in her arms. The fly fisherman, after practicing the casting and fly-tying for years, finds it when that well-tied fly lands effortlessly on the surface of the water. Big Papi, at the plate on that October night at Fenway Park, his team down three games to none, finds it in the 12th inning of the ALCS against the Yankees, when his bat hits the baseball and it sails into the right field stands. In these moments, time seems to slow down. The raging storm is, for an instant, still.
How do you find it when you need it most? You practice it. In the practice of yoga, you choose to place a stress on the body. You stretch, you squeeze, you hold still. In the pose, you deal with it. You breathe in it, through it, with it. You practice it. This practice becomes a tool box for dealing with the stress of everyday life. The chaos will still be there. The traffic and noise will still be there. And you will be there, calm and strong and beautiful.
During last week’s walk downtown, I met one gentlemen sitting outside The Works Cafe. In one hand, he had an unlit cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, and in the other, a dog leash, attached to a small black dog. He didn’t have too much to say, but when I asked if he knew anything about yoga, he looked directly at me and tapped his temple with his two middle fingers. It took me a little by surprise, and I was at a loss for words, so we talked a bit about his dog.
I think he knew a little something about the hidden gem of yoga.
(Mike Morris is the owner of Hot House NH Yoga and Pilates.)