I am a latecomer to yoga. I didn’t attend my first yoga class until I was 46 years old. I was intimidated by the impossibly skinny and muscular women and men who could twist like pretzels and stand on their heads without breaking a sweat. But I was starting a Gestalt training program, which emphasizes the importance of paying attention to the "here and now," and I knew that I needed to find a way to enhance the connection between my mind and my body, as a way to be more present in my family life and work life.
I am an addiction psychiatrist. When I started Gestalt and yoga, I was employed by a major healthcare system in Cleveland, Ohio. I had a very full caseload of patients. I also directed a fellowship program for young psychiatrists. Even if yoga were not the complete answer, I had a hunch it would move me in the right direction. I had a good friend (also a psychiatrist) who recommended her yoga studio. Not knowing where else to start, I bought a package of ten classes and jumped in with both feet firmly planted on my first yoga mat.
A BRAIN ON A STICK
For most of my life I have been a brain on a stick. I have relied on my mind and my thinking to the near exclusion of the rest of my body. I had no idea that I could get important messages from my body or that breathing was the gateway to harmony and balance. In fact, being a doctor with a very hectic medical practice trained me to ignore and suppress my body signals about hunger, tiredness, and using the bathroom. After all, there was always another paper to read or another patient who needed help or another trainee who needed mentoring.
Knowing that my pager could go off at any moment taught me to gulp down most meals in under seven minutes. I could go almost ten hours without a bathroom break, and I was proud of my "stamina." Sleep? That could wait until I was dead. Needless to say, I was not well-versed in listening to my inner self—my inner wisdom—about the toll that constant work was having upon my soul, my children, and my family (see "Dangerous Hope vs. Daring Hope").
ENTERING A FLOW STATE
Not surprisingly, I approached yoga with surgical precision and a critical mindset. That’s how I am. If I choose to do something, I approach it like a job, as something to perfect. I had to get every pose just right or else the class would be a failure. I struggled to match the in-breath with upward-dog pose and the out-breath with downward dog—or was it the other way around? I struggled to memorize the order of the poses. I especially hated half-moon pose: my legs shook, and I lost my balance, and I couldn’t hold still for more than a second. I compared myself to every person in the room and fell short most of the time. Also, I sweat so much that I rained all over my clothes and my yoga mat. Whenever the teacher asked if we wanted the fan on, I was the first one to yell out, "Yes please!" As you might suspect, I steered clear of those "hot yoga" classes where the heat is turned up to 95 degrees to induce a healing sweat. For me, the "yoga for beginners" class produced a healing sweat.
I am not sure what made me stick with yoga classes. Maybe the challenge of wanting to master the poses? Maybe my natural stubbornness and curiosity to keep learning something new? Ever so slowly, I started to figure things out. Yoga is not a competition. Yoga is not typically an aerobic exercise, though it can feel that way. It is a practice of integrating body, mind, and spirit in a nonjudgmental way. It is a way of being in a flow state of balance all the time.
Slowly, I have realized that I can give myself a tiny bit of grace to make a mistake and not be perfect. I credit this insight to my teachers who would suggest poses without demanding anything from me. I remember the relief and gratitude I felt the first time I heard a teacher say, "You can come out of any pose whenever you want and go to child’s pose for a break." (Child’s pose is a very simple and restful stretch for the entire spine, shoulders, and arms. You simply kneel and fold yourself forward with extended arms, forehead resting on the floor.) This was revolutionary to me. I didn’t have to beat myself up anymore when I felt I couldn’t get things right. In fact, I realized that I could engage in a "child’s pose" for my mind anytime I noticed myself judging me. In yoga, there is no right or wrong, there is just me, . . . breathing . . . and being.