Western medicine couldn’t heal my body. This realization – and my acceptance of it – slowly sunk into my bones. A couple of months after my last cortisone injection, I tried a “medical yoga” class, a synthesis of restorative yoga and physical therapy intended for injured people, taught by a nurse from the local hospital. I went once or twice a week for a month, and had a small taste of the therapeutic benefits of restorative yoga. My intuition and my body both whispered “Yes, more please”.
I was still hanging on to a few preconceived notions and false misperceptions about classes at yoga studios: too much dogma / I don’t want to be the only man in the room / don’t you need to be flexible? My ex-wife pushed me to try it, insisting I would benefit from it. She was right, and I’ll always be grateful to her for that. There’s a twist, though: yoga practice eventually led to profound shifts in my psychological and emotional habits, and it was a major catalyst in my decision to end the marriage. In addition to the strain of chronic illness, our marriage had become sticky with other unresolved complications too. Yoga eventually taught me how to listen to myself, rather than tune myself out; I began to acknowledge my feelings, rather than turn away from them in order to please and protect others.
I was on the threshold of turning 40 when I began attending a Kripalu yoga studio in New York. My primary teacher, Steven, was an older man. Steven had once been an auto mechanic, sustained serious injuries, and eventually rehabilitated and transformed his body through yoga – a perfect teacher for me. I knew I was finally taking a big step down a healing path, and was thrilled to have found what I would come to think of as “my medicine”. So what if I had to modify most of the poses? I found peace of mind, reduced stress-levels, a rested heart, and deep physical therapy there on the hardwood floors of that second-story studio space, daylight streaming in over Steven’s garden of indoor plants. And I learned how to breathe.
I acknowledged myself in a way I never had in my life. I surrendered to the discomfort and the ease of the poses. I surrendered to myself, and to life. It was cathartic to stop fighting, to stop resisting against the painful parts of my life. I’d never related to the world that way before – I’d always fought, always resisted.
In the course of two years with Steven I lost thirty pounds, my carpal tunnel healed completely, my other injuries healed almost completely, and my knee healed by about seventy-five percent. (I think it’s important to note here that the purpose of yoga is not to “get in shape”, though that often inherently occurs as a side-effect.)
Joel Kramer has described yoga as “a psychophysical approach to life and to self-understanding”. Kripalu Yoga is often described as “meditation in motion”, and focuses on restoring your connection with yourself through movement and stillness, offering clarity and calm. You linger in each pose, staying in the discomfort and the comfort, and observe what comes up, escalating the process of self-inquiry and allowing insights to occur. Repeated practice lays the groundwork for healing, increasing one’s sense of wholeness, and – for me – a sense of gathering up scattered pieces of myself.
At the same time, yoga practice lays a foundation for self-acceptance that brings with it the possibility for change. You become a scientist whose project is your own behavior, habits, motivations. One of the central points of yoga is simply to raise the questions: what do I spend all my time doing? Why? Who am I? From there, you just keep practicing, continuing to work with yourself in much the same way a kindly grandmother might lovingly knead dough and patiently bake bread, day after day. You don’t embrace or reject, you simply make loaf after loaf with love and effort, becoming a little more skilled each time.
Yoga, meditation, and breathing practice have calmed the extremity of my highs and lows, connecting me to a much more anchored center in which to sit with myself, and from which to carry myself in the world. It helps me appreciate and make sense of the losses I’ve endured, and inspires me to call into question how we define gain and loss, success and failure, in Western society. It helps me make contact with my own heart-life and the ground of my own being, which brings welcome relief from the self-identity my mind is always subconsciously working so hard to maintain, in order to be seen in the ways it desires to be seen.
We all have a lot to learn about how and why we see ourselves in the ways that we do, and why we relate to others in the ways we do. Yoga has the potential to assist us hugely in that endeavor. In the same way that your body learns to soften its rigidity and surrender to the discomfort of an asana shape, your mind begins to relax its grip on its belief constructs. One begins to lean in the direction of experiencing life from a place of curiosity rather than emotional reactivity.
As you continue, the process continues: old parts of you long to be identified and released to make space for new roots, new directions, new dimensions to be brought to the surface, acknowledged, realized. You’re left with a sense of steadiness that eventually stays with you, whether or not you’re on a rectangular mat.
Steady breath, steady practice, and even a little steadiness in life.