Why the dancer in me (who yearned to dance) loves Yoga

Yoga videos. They are everywhere.
Sped up, slowed down, jazzed up, stripped bare, Hollywood glamorous, or iPhone masterpieces that capture the building up to, or getting right to the heart of, that one elusive shape that justifies why we call Yoga a “practice.”

Yes, that one holy grail of a pose that makes Yoga skeptics, pooh-pooh-ers and naysayers affirm to themselves once and for all that placing one’s feet on top of one’s head (regardless of which direction they may be coming in from for landing) does not make world peace any more attainable, rent any cheaper, or credit card debts any lower. As someone very near and dear to me once said, “the world would be a much better place if people stopped twisting themselves into pretzels!”

For the record, this person is now one of the greatest Yoga enthusiasts I know, and can frequently be found taking in an upside down view of the world…in a headstand.

But for the sake of generalizing here, don’t worry. I’d be the first to gently offer up thoughts from the other side of the coin:

No matter whether you are putting your feet on your head, standing upside down on your hands, backbending yourself into a rainbow, sitting quietly cross-legged, or lying motionless on the floor in savasana, Yoga has the ability to deepen who you are if you let it. It has the power to shine a light on the qualities in yourself that you have buried away because, somewhere along the line, you lost faith in their capacity to flourish, whether through your own self-judgement or the criticisms of others. Yoga has a different impact on each and every life it touches. Some are unchanged by the practice because they forget or deny to take on the part where ‘the practice’ moves into the world beyond the short rubber runway beneath your feet. Others are transformed in the most positive ways, and for good — softened where they were hardened, opened where they were closed, inspired where they were once searching for their spark…

I took my first Yoga class at 17. It was one of the most physically challenging things I had ever done…but amidst the awkward downward dogs, something clicked.

I had recently graduated from high school where I had been turned off from anything related to using my body, unless it was acting in Drama classes or the school musicals. Even there, I was self-conscious to a point. In Musical Theatre, I yearned to dance as confidently and with as much grace and coordination as those who probably spent time every day in a dance studio. Oftentimes, it took me twice as long as the other kids to gain my footing with the choreography…

And then there was Gym class.
It’s sad to think that my primary recollections of Physical Education (the time where I should’ve been thrilled to get to know my body) involve the humiliation of having to wear a bathing suit in the presence of unforgiving teenaged boys, being left to partner up with the teacher in tennis lessons (I was, admittedly, HORRID at tennis), and praying that I wouldn’t end up having to Cha-Cha with the meanest (and most popular) boy on the rugby team in Social Dance. Yes, even Social Dance — the part that was supposed to be more creative, fun, expressive… more like Musical Theatre! — became an object of dread. Sure, I wanted to be able to dance like all the dancers in the school musical, but this was the last place I could envision myself finding my inner Gene Kelly, let alone cultivating a single shred of self-esteem.

In short, I hated Gym.

Wait, I re-phrase. Perhaps I would’ve been tolerant of Gym if I didn’t have any reason to be afraid of it. Each sport, each subject area, felt like another opportunity for me to suck at something, and risk being made fun of for it. And even more tragic, it wasn’t just me who felt this way. There were other girls who had all the same reasons to be anxious of being in command of their bodies too.

Enter Yoga.
THANK. GOODNESS. My saving grace.
As awkward as that first class was, something kept me going back. I’ve heard it said that you choose all the players in your life’s story, and I must confess, my choice in a very first Yoga teacher set the tone for a wonderful journey. With her steady, reassuring presence, I had found a place where, no matter how ‘bad’ I was, no matter how much of a confused novice, I still felt accepted. There was no judgement. In fact, better yet, I felt nurtured, and encouraged to continue. It was a refreshing contrast to the old high school feeling of wanting to curl up in a ball and be visible to no one. I could be me, and I could be in my body, no matter what that looked like…and (hallelujah!) that was more than OK.

As I grew more familiar with the sequences and postures, simple sun salutations began to feel like dancing. *Gasp!* I was dancing! When I moved and breathed, I felt graceful. More than that, I felt…beautiful, and strong. It was something I could never have said about myself in a decade of Social Dances. Maybe my body wasn’t open, flexible or strong enough to do all the fancy postures (to this day, there are many postures that remain untouched, barely explored or just highly modified) but I felt ease, and peace. I felt that I could grow more fond of my body because it was doing something that made me feel deeply content inside.

To this day, I see my yoga practice as a form of expression, my dance, with as much to share in stillness as in movement.

Life will be what it will be, but the simple act of sweeping my arms up over head as I inhale, lifting my gaze upward, and then falling, floating forward as I exhale to fold over my legs, touch my toes, a soft smile on my lips… At last, this sense of peace.

I don’t need to be a dancer in this lifetime, but let me have THIS dance.

When I found this video featuring Elena Brower moving through a short, simple sequence in front of a video installation at the MoMA, it took my breath away. Yes, this 5-minute Yoga video on the internet highlighted part of what I see to be the beauty of the practice of Yoga: simplicity, ease, quiet strength, connectedness…the breath, body, mind, heart, spirit, all united in the moment. This is as magical to experience from the inside as it is to witness, something so vibrant, alive and passionate it blows the locks off the doors of your heart; the courageous act of using a vocabulary of movement and shapes to create a story with our one unique body, our own unique breath.

A dance…a deep surrendering to the dance.

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What does your heart say?

Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to remember the earliest whisperings of our heart?  All the things our hearts told our childhood selves that we had the boldness and bravery to follow through on IMMEDIATELY?

“Come on…you can walk! Do it! Or wait, Yes! RUN!”

“I really need you to eat this dirt so you can learn the meaning of ‘Yucky!’!”

“It’s ok. Just cry. And don’t worry if anyone tells you you shouldn’t.”

I’m certainly not saying that we all lack bravery and boldness now — in fact, I think it is the everyday acts of bravery, small or large, that are the most inspiring to us all.  But we have all seen it as we’ve ‘grown up’ — the ways in which, over time, we become conditioned to be more cautious in our approach, to listen to the voices around us rather than the quiet voice inside. Experience has shown me that choices with far less reason behind them than you would expect (and a healthy amount of buzzing excitement) are typically on the path you are meant to follow, to bring you closer to that elusive P word…Purpose.

I can think, off the top of my head, of 4 things that I have done that were called into question and ended up being undeniably the most powerful choice for my own growth and evolution as a human being:

To travel to Morocco (‘It’s so far! It could be dangerous and they harass women there! It’s expensive!’)

To take a yoga training in Bali (‘It’s even further away! And it’s even MORE expensive to get there!’)

To subsequently [I hear it happens a lot after people do yoga trainings in Bali 😉] leave a job surrounded by people I considered a ‘second family’ in pursuit of a change (‘So do you have another job lined up?’)

Then there was the 4th thing. A choice that, in order to explain the ways this moment changed all areas of my life — creating beautiful,  criss-crossing webs of connection — would take an entire novel. (Or at least a novella.)

11 years ago today, I had a life-altering talk with my now-husband who was, at that time, my not-yet-boyfriend. We were sitting in a field on campus eating falafel and iced tea. He had asked me out on a date and my 20-year-old heart (which was admittedly, at the time, a bit hung up on another fantastic fellow) clearly explained his viewpoint on my ‘heart mess.’

He spoke so calmly and warmly, looking straight into my eyes. Cliche or not, I could truly see the depths of his beautiful soul. I’m sure he didn’t know at that time how his words would change both of our lives, but they did.”I can’t tell you what to do…The only thing you need to do is follow your heart. Wherever you follow your heart to, I know that’s where you’ll be happy. And as long as you’re happy, then I will be happy too.”

In that moment, the fog completely cleared. My heart spoke more loudly, and with more certainty, than I think it ever has:

“Him. It’s Him.”

Even greater than that, his words highlighted for me a scattered trail of synchronistic breadcrumbs. I had been told in acting class that week that when I performed, it unmistakably came from my heart. I had received an e-mail from my high school boyfriend about how I had always made decisions with my heart…and here was this wonderful guy, telling me to follow my heart and to be happy in doing so. It was in this moment that it started to become evident to me that my life was meant to be lived from that place. All the years before that in school, I thought it was about filling your head with knowledge, and trying hard to get good grades. Suddenly, I was being shown my greatest asset. Since then, my heart has not let me forget that it’s there. I am telling you this story today because my heart literally yanked me off my yoga mat, drew me here and begged me to put words to my feelings.

This moment eleven years ago continues to remind me of what the path of Purpose should feel like — a stirring in your heart that cannot be ignored…a quiet nod of ‘Yes’… a gentle nudge…a summoning of courage to take the leap…

It may not always be the easiest path, or the most practical, or one that everyone will understand. As far as I have seen, though, it is the most meaningful, beautiful, exciting path of all.

What does your heart say? Where will it take you today?

Whispered the heart ALG Nov 26 2013.jpg