Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Off the Mat
Back when I was really sick, people recommended I take up yoga. This suggestion annoyed me. Cancer had broken my back—not once but twice. Couldn’t they see that bending and stretching was beyond what my body would allow?
After months of back braces, surgery, and radiation, I moved toward remission and living without a brace. Again people recommended yoga and again I was annoyed. I was building strength and logging many miles on my bike—couldn’t they see that I was beyond gentle stretching?
But the world’s preoccupation with yoga seemed to follow me everywhere, and I finally relented and attended a yoga class offered as part of a weekend retreat. It was different than I expected, more challenging than I imagined. And it left me feeling clear-eyed, focused, and calm.
I considered taking up yoga.
Then a yoga studio opened two blocks from my house. I took it as a sign and started with a basic vinyasa class. The class was challenging and rewarding. My back benefited from the core work. I gained flexibility and expanded my range of motion.
But what hooked me was the breathing. Yoga, I’ve come to understand, is not just about stretching or moving limbs into strange postures. Key to the practice is the breath. The goal is to unify breath and movement, to breathe in energy and expel stress.
After six full months of the introductory course, I moved—with some trepidation—into a more advanced class. Many of the postures were far out of my league. But the breathing was still at the heart of the practice. In my new life of living daily with the reality of cancer, I was being helped by the breathing, the focus on the here and now, and the pleasure of being able to move into postures that not long before seemed permanently out of reach. Yoga became integral to coping with my new life.
My friend who mentored me into yoga recommended I try hot yoga. Sweating at the sound of it, I doubted I could enjoy such a thing. I asked my friend what one does in hot yoga. “You hold the postures, sweat a lot, and try not to freak out,” was her response. I told her that didn’t sound very appealing. “If you can learn to breathe through it and not freak out on your mat, you can learn to breathe through it and not freak out off your mat,” my friend said, encouragingly.
As I continue to practice yoga, often at high temperatures, I’m grateful for more than just the physical benefits of yoga. The wise words of my friend helped me understand why practicing yoga has become such an important part of my life: it is the breathing, the focus, and the letting go on the mat that helps me with focus and letting go off the mat.
There has been much debate over whether yoga is a religious practice. After all, it is rooted in the tradition of Hinduism. Even though many presentations of yoga in the U.S. today have been severed—or at least loosened—from these Hindu roots, I’m not alone when I say that I experience yoga as a spiritual practice. As a Christian, I appreciate learning from a practice rooted in a worldview that has thought more about mind-body connections than most people in my own tradition have. Those of us in mainline Protestant Christianity can live too much in our heads, and our own religious practices can neglect the very reality that we have bodies. Yoga helps me live into the Christian conviction that bodies matter.
Cancer’s invasion into and threat to take over my body has made me more conscious of how, in many ways, I am my body. Being on my mat in yoga translates into benefits for my body, mind, and spirit off the mat. And that’s a gift of grace.