This is an unoriginal truth: yoga has healed me. It pains me to write this sickly sweet and trite sentence. It feels as though I am chewing on a stale, soft caramel. Nevertheless, it is true. With this ancient physical practice, I have learned to treat my body more gently. Through straightening my spine and spreading my hands on a mat, the rift between my body and my self has narrowed. I have become more flexible, and therefore more enlivened, less contracted. These changes have happened slowly, the way that ocean water softens bedrock, over time.
The practice of yoga is older than most modern religions, but despite its tested wisdom and its immeasurable effect on innumerable bodies, “yoga,” under the influence of commercialism and celebrity, has become the brunt of jokes about pretension and overpriced leggings. In our popular imagination, yoga is trendy, shallow enough to be boiled down vague platitudes about letting go of fear in your headstand and your life. There are now yoga classes choreographed to Top 40 music with teachers who grumble under their breath when inexperienced students sit in the front row. It is, however, a practice that has popular appeal, which in many ways, shows the breadth and depth of its impact.
Three summers ago, I completed a yoga-teacher training program in New York City. I undertook the intensive for the sake and nurturance of my own body. After a year that stretched my mind and heart in more ways than I could encapsulate in a paragraph, I set foot in a new studio, books and mat in hand, ready to deepen my practice. My effort to heal and strengthen my body was not as easy and straightforward as I’d planned, though. It was an arduous program. My body felt wrecked every day by the nearly continuous practice. I had so much soreness in the small crevices between large muscle groups I could barely walk. And my heart had never felt weaker. I was hyper-sensitive and cried at nearly everything: the ending of a recent relationship, my persistent indecision around my life’s purpose, the plight of homelessness in Manhattan, my new friends’ stories of heartbreak and resilience, and the sight of a beautiful sunset.
My life was flooded with color and emotion during that month. Although it was nearly four years ago, I can still remember the smallest details. The way my apartment felt when the air conditioning was turned on; the view from my window to the Hudson River; the taste of the milk and granola I’d eat before class; the cotton-candy colors of the June sunrises; the smell of the lavender detergent I used; the songs I listened to as I walked to the studio every morning. I felt fully alive to what was happening down to the smallest level, which at the time felt like weakness, weakness drawn out in tears, but in hindsight, was the cultivation of softness, the softness that mindfulness prescribes and prepares the way for new strength. Muscles must tear first before they become stronger.
Hindsight, too, sheds light on how inner strength develops. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but the yoga studio that hosted the training was three blocks away from the office where I’d be hired a year later. As I was looking out of the window of my temporary home, I was looking toward the neighborhood where Jack and I would share our first home. All the heart work – the crying and indecision – was preparing me for next month, when the conditions of my whole life would radically change, when I’d be listening to the same music but feeling entirely differently, when I’d be physically stronger and also falling in love. I was on the precipice of new life and wild change, preparing like a gentle, diligent warrior.
The place of healing, emotional, spiritual, and physical, is often dismissed in our culture, which values productivity over compassion, efficiency over community, avoidance over feeling, individuality over empathy, and novelty over wisdom. Healing is rarely discussed unless an individual is noticeably sick or suffering from an illness, so we ignore the ways we need to tend to our ongoing wellness, our inner life, that gives us the strength, courage, and restoration needed for us to do our larger work in the world.
Brene Brown, social work researcher and author, has a concept for living with vulnerability and courage that she describes as the development of a “strong back, soft front, wild heart.” She argues that too many of us live with defended and armed fronts, protecting weak spines, and concealing our hearts.
I live with a spine condition that requires a lot of time and care in order for me to live with less pain. If I do not put forth enough energy to manage it, it might someday look as though my body is collapsing upon the area around my heart. Yoga, for me, literally and figuratively, strengthens my back and opens my heart. As I live with my body in the way that it hurts, as I give thanks for what it can do, as I grow stronger, I return to the mat, and I remember, for a time, that I have a body that is beautiful. Not because American culture or a man told me so, but because it is the part of the universe that belongs to me. And that is sacred.
In the stretching and strengthening of the body, we cultivate softness, compassion, and wild hearts. We confront our pain, human limitation, and discomfort. We, for lack of a better word, heal.