April 2014

The yoga practice that changed my life

I sat on my yoga mat in a sunlit studio surrounded by a sea of mats just like mine.  The room held 25 people comfortably. Today we numbered about 45.

We were packed in like sardines for a yoga workshop with teacher Rodney Yee.

And me – I felt like a fish.

Not a sardine, really.  But a fish for sure.

The fish that’s just been reeled in and still connected to the line at the end of the pole — flip-flopping around on the dock in frantic efforts to get back to its natural watery habitat.

That was me.  A fish out of water.  A long way from my home.

I was growing up, getting older. My 33-year-old self was outgrowing some of my long-held beliefs and behaviors.

As a theatre performer, I was getting different roles than I’d ever gotten. No longer the youthful ingenue, I was getting cast as mothers and quirky characters.

I started developing stage fright. I didn’t know who I was. I just knew I wasn’t the same person I always thought I was.

My worry over what others thought of me occupied my mind much of the time. I no longer felt controlled by concern over the changes in my body, mind and experience.

I longed to experience the sense of freedom I once had as a young person.

I hoped that yoga practice might help.

It did.

But this particular day it was not my yoga practice that helped me. I experienced a state of being called yoga just by watching someone else practice.

The class was worn out. We’d  bent, stretched, muscled and moved our way into pose after pose for 2 days.

Some sweaty soul in our group asked a question — probably so Rodney would talk and we could catch a break.

It went something like this.

Sweaty Yoga Student:
So, Rod, what poses do you do when you’re practicing yoga at home by yourself?”

Rodney Yee:
You might be surprised. I keep it pretty simple.  The basic poses mostly.

Sweaty Yoga Student:
Like what poses?

Rodney Yee:
Oh, you know, the standing poses. Sometimes repetitions. Sometimes getting to them in a flow.

Sweaty Yoga Student:
Will you show us?

Rodney didn’t say anything for the next 15 minutes.

Instead, he laid out his yoga mat and stood on it. He was very still, but he stood strong. His eyes in a way I had never seen before.

I could see his ribs spreading as he breathed quietly.

His arms seemed to float up on their own, extending above his head.  Even though he is short in stature, with shorter limbs, his upstretched arms seemed to touch the sky.

Still same focus. His body was strong and working hard. His face, serene and open.

He bent forward to touch the floor, his legs steel-straight and muscles gripped. I could see the sinews of tiny muscles working around his ankles and calves.

With perfect poise, he walked his feet back and his hands forward to show us downward facing dog pose.  His arms and legs working to hold his torso long and full.

He paused there to breathe. But even though it looked like he was holding the pose, there was subtle movement to it.

“This is what a steady mind looks like,” I thought.

My mind was typically all over the place. My way of life twisted me up in all directions. I needed yoga poses to help untangle my mind.

My body didn’t begin to understand what it meant when the teacher said, “The ideal yoga posture is a balance between effort and non-effort.”

That kind of talk just made me crazy!  In my mind, you could hold a pose for a while or you could flow through from pose to pose.

Rodney continued performing his postures for us.

The room fell silent. We watched in rapt attention.

Upward facing dog, chaturanga, Warrior 1.  Lunge. Stay in lunge. Breathe. Back to downward facing dog.

I played the part of audience to a fine performance.  Like a virtuoso, Rodney played his body in this improvised moment.

And just when I thought he was perfect, he stumbled. Lost his balance for second.

To my surprise, his face did not react. He didn’t apologize or lose his way.

Finding his center, he came back to himself.

While he was fully aware of our watchful eyes, his gaze was such that I could see he was tuned into himself in a deep way.

He spoke to use a couple of times, saying things like, “This is one of my favorite poses,” and “Let’s see how this next one will go.”

As he shifted and moved, his focus remained. He was fully committed to each tiny adjustment he made and how his balance changed with each milli-second.

I felt a change in my body, just from watching him.

Physically, I felt light. Mentally clear. And in some strange way, my heart started to sing.

There was a sense of clarity and also freedom that permeated the entire room.

Like a seasoned jazz player, Rodney tuned into himself and improvised with his whole self.

Body. Mind. Soul.

That’s the yoga practice that changed my life.