The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

Focus: Why Yoga? – Challenge August 18, 2010

If we learn to open our hearts, anyone – including the people who drive us crazy – can be our teacher. – Pema Chodron, Buddhist monk and teacher

I would take the above quote a step further and say, “Anyone or anything – including the people or situations that drive us crazy – can be our teacher.” To me, this is challenge.  Challenge comes in many forms.  Perhaps we are facing tough difficulties; or, maybe we are offered great opportunities.  With all challenge, we are invited to jump into or go through something big, something new, something nerve-racking.

The question is – can we SEIZE opportunities…can we GROW through our difficulties?

For me, all challenge is a teacher and brings the chance to grow. But I did NOT always feel this way!  Hah!  All challenge meant inconvenience and discomfort!  Difficulties meant stuffing emotions in order to look strong.  “That’s OK, I’m fine!”  And opportunities meant finding ways to side-step toward a more comfortable route.  “I don’t feel safe doing that.”  What I’m really saying in those cases is, “I am afraid – afraid to feel my feelings; afraid to try something new.”

The funny thing is, these responses to challenge are related.  When I act strong on the outside but feel broken within, consequently, I stop taking healthy risks because I strongly crave comfort.  On the other hand, when I get honest with myself and others about my brokenness, my shadows and my difficulties, I find the support, conditioning and strength to seize opportunities and grow through challenge.

Yoga helps me do this.

Using yoga to face difficulties. In the past, my practice decreased when life got tough.  I remember a rough loss in February 2008.  Prone toward restless sleep, lazy mornings and naps on the couch, I most certainly did not prioritize my yoga practice.  People had to coax me from my apartment just to hang out and eat a little.  Ugh.  Then one day I received a “We Miss You” promotion from Flow Yoga Center.  It had been a while since I “belonged” to a studio.  At that very moment, I felt a need to belong.

I dove in.

Getting back into the DC yoga community truly re-awakened my life.  With a new set of teachers who helped me rehab structural injuries and regain physical confidence, consistent exposure to yogic philosophy, and regular connection with fellow yogis, I started to heal emotionally. By the end of that summer, I’d remembered my past yearning to teach yoga.  And in Fall of 2008, I became a certified instructor.

Using yoga for seizing opportunity. For 15 years I attended Level 1 yoga classes.  Talk about fear of healthy risk!  Granted, I’d been healing from a number of physical injuries; and, I’d been through some emotional losses.  So I had all the excuses in the world to stick with the comfort of my precious Level 1 practice.  After becoming certified to teach in 2008, I felt excited to teach beginners, and share the fundamentals that established my yoga foundation.  At the same time, that foundation was just that – a blank slab with nothing rising out of it.  I started to feel limited and stagnant in my own yoga practice.  And I noticed that same stagnant quality in my life, as well.

I had no faith.

I only had fear of newness, fear of being vulnerable, fear of failing.  I was living the same story every day – no risks, no opportunities, no challenges – and therefore, no growth.  So this year, I resolved to try Level 2 Asana!  Instead of saying, “I can’t do that pose because of my shoulder injury,” I asked for modifications to build the strength toward that pose.  Instead of claiming, “My core is not strong enough,” I asked for assistance in order to experience the full pose.  Instead of listening to my self-limiting stories, I committed to gradual conditioning and I accepted outside support.

If you’ve read past posts (i.e. April’s “100%” and May’s “100%+1”), you know that this year has been immensely progressive and I have seized a number of opportunities! I owe it to yoga – and the consequent inspiration and motivation I have received all around.

On that note…some of you know that I am a crier.

For me, shedding tears is a huge part of my path toward growth.  Tears keep me honest. Tears will sneak up on me in the middle of a yoga class – perhaps pigeon pose unlocks those stuffed emotions, or, a song triggers my heart to melt.  Or both.  I find that, if I allow myself that good “I can’t hold onto my tears because my body is so challenged by Asana right now” cry…I feel refreshed.  I feel stronger.  I feel clear.  I feel able to face what’s next.

I fondly recall two memories of transformations from fear to feeling, and from fear to faith.  I was terrified of “flipping the dog” – this fairly new and dance-like practice of moving from Downward Facing Dog into Wheel by, essentially, flipping the body.  I would watch people next to me in class and say, “That’s not yoga.”  The fact was – I was scared, and my self-limiting stories manifested in my judgment of others!!!

Then one night this Spring – during the height of my discernment about life’s direction – I was at John Horan’s class at Past Tense Studio.  John’s classes are beyond inspiring – with fairy tales and cosmic lighting, they take us to another world.  I guess my self-limiting brain was not functioning in this other world!  John was playing songs from the new Sade CD, all about love and strength and empowerment. So I was already a bit emotional.  There we were, in Downward Facing Dog, when John extended the invitation to “flip the dog.”

Suddenly, I felt as though strong hands reached down from the heavens and lifted me into the pose.

My leg rose, my hip opened high, I floated on my fingertips and I easefully settled into Wheel.  And I cried.  Pure tears of surrender.  All of my “no”s washed away.  Yes, I can flip my dog, and yes, it is yoga.  Yes, I can develop faith by practicing yoga.

I can also tap into stuffed feelings in class.  Recently, I went through weeks of struggle about a relationship, which finally ended.  Sometimes I think I’m totally in touch with that loss and am processing it authentically.  And sometimes yoga class tells me otherwise.

Just yesterday, I was feeling “ahhh-some” in yet another lovely class with Caroline Millet.  She guided us through a true Sun Salutation for the entire set.  The music was perfect for the summer sunrise – mellow acoustic folk and sweet Hindu chants.  And then, while in Downward Facing Dog, Caroline invited us (as she often does) to find something new in the pose.  So I was hanging out and waiting for the revelation. And BAM, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s sweet and heart-breaking version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” nailed me right in the heart.

I sunk to my knees and wept in child’s pose.

Apparently, I am still grieving my loss.  And lately, I have been too busy to feel.  Thankfully, I can reach and release these feelings in the safe space of a yoga practice, surrounded by community members and guided by a caring teacher.

How does yoga help you face challenges – whether new opportunities, or difficult times?  If not by releasing emotions or presenting new poses, then how does your practice support your growth – on and of the mat?  When you meet life’s teachers – even those people and situations that drive you crazy, make you uncomfortable, rock your security – can you embrace them with an open heart?

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

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