This is a favorite photo of mine – it is me with one of my most important teachers, Angela Farmer.
For those beginning or considering beginning yoga, I thought it might be helpful to hear about my own entry into yoga. Nothing happens at once. It takes time to learn, grow and heal, one step after another. Everyone must just begin and then things will lead where you want them to, one way or another. This is my little wandering road.
When I look back on the years of studying yoga, it seems to be marked by a series of discoveries. Here are four of the big ones.
Discovery 1: I came for the arthritis, and stayed for the quiet mind
My mother and grandmother suffered from debilitating arthritis. When I entered my mid-40s, I found aches and pains increasing in number and severity. Advil had become part of my daily diet.
I read that yoga could prevent and treat arthritis, so I bought a DVD for beginner yoga, sat on our living room floor and began: Fifteen minutes a day for two weeks. That is what I committed to.
Two things stick with me from those early weeks – First, yoga hurt! Every movement was a challenge. My muscles felt like they were pinching and firing little electrical storms with every forward bend. My body clearly had no idea how to do this.
Second, for 15 minutes a day, my mind was quiet. The physical practice somehow created separation from the daily routine, my breath was rhythmic, and my brain melted into silence. It was heaven . . . achy, pinchy heaven, but heaven. Yoga would be part of my life going forward, for sure.
Discovery 2: Unwinding decades of pain is like going on an archeological dig
Two weeks turned into an open-ended, ongoing practice. After two months, I had an amazing experience: One day, out of the blue it seemed, the yoga practice not only felt wonderful for my mind, but it felt wonderful in my body. It was as if my body was thanking me. I felt joyful and – what was this strange sensation? – at ease.
It was time to take the plunge and go to a real yoga teacher. An Iyengar yoga studio was near work and fit my schedule (Iyengar yoga is a school of yoga launched by BKS Iyengar; Iyengar teachers get special training in alignment and therapeutics). The teachers there taught me a LOT about how to support myself as I worked through chronic pain issues. I am very grateful for their gentle, attentive help during these early, achy days.
My pain issues had gathered over years. First, sciatica showed up in high school. Then my neck was injured in my 20s. Then I pulled a muscle when I was six months pregnant. Etcetera . . . it is called life. As I practiced yoga, each of these sources of pain were relieved in the opposite order they showed up in my life. It was as though I was living in reverse time, digging into the surface of the earth one layer after another, probing slowly into its depths.
After six months of daily practice, pretty much all of my pain issues had been resolved, even the sciatic pain. I still took Advil, but maybe once every week or two. The daily Advil habit was no longer needed.
Discovery 3: Becoming younger, again
Having learned to manage and significantly reduce the pain issues, I turned to a more active yoga practice. This gave my mind space and my body strength.
I remember telling a friend that for every year of yoga, I felt five years younger. After three years, I was in my mid-30s again, ready to carry my four year olds up and down stairs, drag them all over the zoo, and race them through an airport. Neither of my kids were four any more, but I felt capable and ready, no longer worn out and no longer scraping by.
Discovery 4: Coming into myself
What we think of as yoga, the physical practice, is only one of eight ‘limbs’ of yoga. The other seven limbs are practices that begin with the quiet mind I had experienced in my very first weeks of yoga. As my physical yoga practice grew, I became curious about these other practices. For sure, I wanted to build on the quiet mind thing (which still felt like a miracle), but what else was there? Meditation, breath work, a different set of ethical principles — what were they all about?
These are practices that take time and a village to develop. Under the guidance of teachers such as Angela Farmer, Molly McManus and Ann Maxwell, and after some number of years of trial and error, these other practices have helped me lean into problems and breathe through them. Just as my quiet mind gave me the space to breathe through those achy, pinchy moments in the first months of practice, these practices offer tools to cope with all the normal challenges of life — from parenthood to breast cancer scares, from my parents becoming ill and passing away to career changes.
Sometimes it seems these practices have taken me on another archeological dig, this time through my heart and mind (Angela would say, ‘not sometimes, but always’). They have put me on steadier ground and offered a path to emotional and spiritual healing and resilience. Another gift from yoga.
So that is my journey. Yours will be filled with your own discoveries. One of my yoga teachers at the Iyengar studio used to say, ‘Every small, positive change you make leads to another small, positive change. You just never know what it will be until you are there!’