Western medicine couldn’t heal my body. The realization of that, along with 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 people with injuries. It was 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, this. Give yourself more of this and some healing could be possible.
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 beyond grateful to her for that. There’s a twist here, though: the practice of yoga eventually led to transformational shifts in my psychological and emotional states, and was a profound part of my decision to end our marriage. In addition to the strain of chronic illness, our marriage had become sticky with other complications too. I began to see that I no longer had the capacity for it.
I was on the threshold of turning forty when I began practicing Kripalu yoga at a local studio in New York. My primary teacher, Steven, was an older man who had once been an auto mechanic, sustained serious injuries, and eventually rehabilitated and transformed his body through yoga – a perfect teacher for me. This was just what I needed, not a giraffe-like twenty-something who didn’t know how it felt to be in an overweight, injured, middle-aged man’s body. It was plain to me that I was now 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, a rested heart, and profound physical therapy there on the hardwood floors of that second-story yoga studio, daylight streaming in over the plants, near the windows overlooking the street. I acknowledged myself in a way I never had before. I surrendered to the discomfort and the ease of the poses, and to myself. It was cathartic to stop fighting, to stop resisting against the painful parts of my life. I’d never related to life that way before. I’d always fought, always resisted.
In the course of my 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.) Now, five years in, I feel stronger than ever.
Joel Kramer has described yoga as “a psychophysical approach to life and to self-understanding”. Kripalu Yoga, much like the Insight Yoga developed by Sarah Powers, 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 for you, escalating the act of self-inquiry, allowing insights to compost and bubble up to the surface. Practicing repeatedly lays the groundwork for healing to be possible, bringing a sense of wholeness and a sense of gathering the scattered pieces of yourself.
At the same time, it 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 practicing yoga is simply to ask the question: what do I spend all my time doing, and why? This willingness to self-inquire is your base-camp: to meet whatever you find with a tender acceptance and soft attention. From there, you just continue working 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 discipline, becoming a little more skilled each time.
For me personally, yoga (along with meditation) has calmed the extremity of my highs and lows, connecting me to a much more anchored center in which to be 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 American society. It helps me make contact with my heart and the ground of my being, which gives me 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 the ways that we do, and why we relate to other people, and the rest of life, in the ways that 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 pose, your ego-mind begins to loosen its grip on its own constructs and beliefs. 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, an evenness, that eventually stays with you whether or not you’re on a thin rectangular mat.
Steady breath, steady practice, and maybe even a little steadiness in life.