On a cloudy Wednesday morning in July 2017, I left my Amsterdam apartment and jumped on my new black city bike, or 'omafiets' as they call it in the Dutch language. A new local app granted me access to different fitness locations all over the city, and I was on my way to try out a new yoga class. I peddled fiercely down a street of identical red brick buildings and tall green trees. As I turned right at the end of the street, I threw a glance at the boat lined canal near my apartment. Weeping willows arched down towards the water sparkling in the muted sunlight. The air vibrated with the song of birds and branches swaying in the wind. Despite the unremarkable summer weather, to say the least, I still couldn’t believe I actually lived in such a beautifully serene place.
In stark contrast to my growing familiarity with my new city, my general sense of direction in life was dwindling. I was gradually getting lost. It was my fourth month living in Amsterdam, and I still didn’t find a job. My inbox overflowed with emails thanking me for my enthusiasm while notifying me that I was not selected for the job despite my creative abilities. My initial reservoir of excitement and optimism was drying out. Besides applying for jobs, my other outstanding daily activities consisted of doing the laundry and grocery shopping. Life seemed blurry; weekdays blended into the weekends and each day disturbingly resembled the previous one. It was as if I suddenly found myself in a long tunnel, and I had no idea how long I was going to wander around in the dark before light would appear at the end of it.
But my distress did not end there. My evolving agitation was not just internal–it was also physical. For months my body was in constant pain for no apparent reason. No doctor was able to provide a diagnosis for my condition or any type of comfort for that matter. I did not understand what was going on. The lack of answers only added to my evolving discomfort and anxiety. I felt betrayed by my body and my overactive mind could not be silenced. Cracks were appearing in my well constructed inner landscape and I was losing touch with myself. Ironically, the calm local atmosphere only seemed to highlight my inner dis-ease. How could I feel so restless in such a tranquil environment?
As part of my frenzied search for inner peace, I turned to yoga. I remembered being told it could help calm my mind as well as my body. The app’s strict cancelation policy pulled me out of bed every morning and allowed me to venture out to a new destination every day. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Yoga was then added to my daily routine, and that morning was no different.
Lost in thought and music, I paddled down the main street that took me straight to the city center. I crossed another few picturesque canals before turning away from the water into a small street. Google Maps notified me that I had arrived at my destination shortly after. I stopped my bike and looked around. Nothing marked the external entrance to De Nieuwe Yogaschool besides a chalkboard street sign welcoming the yogis and kindly asking them to park their bikes mindfully by the outer wall. Not wishing to break any rules, I parked my bike at the marked area and locked it with two separate locks before entering the studio.
The transition to the inner space was abrupt. Warm aromatic air carrying soft music immediately replaced the cool humid external breeze. The space imposed the calming sensation of visiting a beloved family member or friend. It felt familiar. Everywhere I looked, people smiled at me. I signed up for the class at the reception desk, received a small gold coin, and deposited my belongings in a locker before entering the main studio. The space was massive with high ceilings and window filled white walls. Except for a small stage at the end of the room and a few plants, it was completely empty. I took a mat, a pillow, and a blanket, and placed myself at the right side of the studio. People around me were either meditating or stretching. Few were talking. I sat silently on my mat in a cross-legged position and waited for the class to start.
A door opened to my right. A man entered the room and closed the door behind him in a soundless motion. His presence and demeanor indicated that he was the teacher of today’s class. He walked silently towards the stage, placed his bag on the floor next to it, and plugged his phone into the sound system. Airy electronic music washed over the space like an avalanche. He then turned towards the room and began passing through the mats and wishing the participants good morning as he collected their gold coins. Finally, he sat on his mat on the stage at the front of the room, looked up towards the class, and smiled. The mood shifted. Nothing visible had happened, but something changed. Still ignorant of the massive shift this place would soon introduce into my life, I sat up a little straighter and listened.
For a long moment, we just sat on our mats. “Good morning,” the teacher opened in a deep calm voice, “thank you all for coming today.” He sat with his eyes gazing at the class a while longer and then glanced at a notebook he placed in front of him. “Today we are gonna take a little walk,” he began. “This walk, however, is a different kind of walk. We are used to walking in a familiar environment, such as our neighborhood or a local park. But, sometimes, when we are feeling more free or adventurous, as we are on vacation, and approach the journey with a bit of curiosity, we might wander into new territories. And when we wander around in an unfamiliar landscape, we can easily get lost.” He paused for a moment. There was no urgency in his words. He then continued, “so the question is… what happens when we get lost?”
The words hung in the air for a few seconds. No one said a word. “Well, it can be frightening at first,” he answered his own question, “but if we learn to surrender to the unfamiliar path and allow it to unfold as we go along, it can also be exciting. We might discover something new. We might stumble across a beautiful view.” The music in the background filled up the gaps between his words. “And if we wonder beyond our familiar comfort zone, we might even discover something new about ourselves.” I heard the depth behind the words. The message came across loud and clear. I could feel it resonate with my present reality. But how was all this connected to yoga? Aren’t we supposed to stay on the mat? The answer I sought followed immediately. “So today, on our yoga mat, we will take a walk inward in order to discover the boundaries of our own minds and bodies. And just like getting lost, things might become a bit uncomfortable at times...”
The teacher’s last words snapped me out of my zen state of mind. It suddenly dawned upon me that this was not a sitting class and I was actually facing 90 minutes of extremely challenging yoga poses. Worry kicked in. My workout routine was nonexistent since I left dance in 2009 and I have only been persisting with the local app for a mere few weeks. Was this a good idea? Should I have joined the beginners class instead? He concluded his short introduction by asking, “can you stay awake and aware of the triggers of your mind to the sensations of your body? Can you stay calm and steady in the midst of discomfort?”
At the time, I did not know the answer to that question. I did not know anything about the triggers of my mind nor did I know anything about how they reacted to the sensations of my body. But there was one thing that my 2017 self was certain of–putting it all to the test was going to hurt. This was no walk in the park.
Little did I know back then, but my experiences on and off the yoga mat in the following years were going to teach me about my triggers and sensations beyond anything I could imagine or comprehend at that moment. What was about to unfold during that very first yoga class at De Nieuwe Yogaschool was only the beginning of a very long and steep journey into the unknown.