Getting Lost - Part II
Updated: Sep 2, 2020
Breathe in, breathe out.
Before we started our practice, we were instructed to close our eyes and focus on our breath. “Just feel...” the teacher voiced. The class slowly settled into a flow. I discovered that in yoga, the teacher counts to the rhythm of the breath, unlike in dance classes where the teacher counts to the rhythm of the music. The teacher then connected an inhale or an exhale to every movement and the music remained in the background. I also learned that in yoga, movement follows breath, and losing your breath meant losing your connection with awareness–with yourself. I wondered if that was true for everyday life as well, and if so, how long have I been living in such a disconnected state? “It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or an experienced practitioner,” the teacher exclaimed, “remember to breathe. The breath must always stay the same; If there is no breath there is no yoga.”
I was enjoying the slow stretching and the feeling of movement in my body, but the continuous attempts to synchronize my breath with my body’s movements were proving to be quite a struggle. Following an unfamiliar yoga sequence while simultaneously focusing on the rhythm of my breath was a mental challenge as much as it was a physical one. In the midst of my battle towards synchrony, we were told to make our way to the top of the mat. We entered ‘mountain pose’, or simply ‘standing straight pose’, in common language. We just stood there for a while, breathing and experiencing the feel of our feet on the ground. “What is the view like from here?” the teacher asked.
The attention was constantly redirected to our inner landscape. Interesting. How do you look inward? I didn’t know what else to do but stay silent and focus on my breath.
This was new. I never paid this much attention to standing still and breathing before. After a few moments, I became very much aware of my body. It suddenly became apparent that some parts were strained while others were more at ease. I noticed that my shoulders, neck, and jaw were clenched. I never paid attention to all these tensions in my body before that moment. Even more alarming, was my strained and shallow breath. Did I always breathe like this? I inhaled deeply and tried to relax a bit more on the exhale. And then the class actually started.
We went through the first sequence of sun salutations. We stretched our arms up towards the sky, folded down towards the earth, jumped into planks, and moved in between upward and downward facing dogs. Barely keeping up, I was already breaking a sweat and my heart rate was rising. The poses demanded a surprising amount of upper body strength, and even when we were finally on our feet, it was in some kind of lunge position. The quick transitions between up and down were enough to make one dizzy, and just keeping my balance seemed to employ every muscle in my body. We repeated lunge squats and exhaled through our mouth. We folded our bodies into a myriad of pretzel-like positions and kept breathing with our mouths closed. Uncomfortable would be an understatement. The question ‘why did I join this class?’ kept popping up in my mind.
I quickly discovered that moving was the easy part. The real challenge presented itself when we were told to keep still in uncomfortably complex poses and continue our slow and deep breaths for an extended period of time. At one point, we found ourselves standing on one leg with our upper bodies and the other leg parallel to the floor; ‘warrior three pose’ as the teacher referred to it. My immediate instinct to hold my breath contradicted the teacher’s instructions. Every fiber of my being and muscle in my body was crying out for me to stop, to release the pose, and run back to comfort. The teacher’s voice asked again, “What is the view like from here?”
Not feeling very warrior-like, the question only emphasized my inner distress. What was the view like?! Between the beads of sweat dripping into my eyes and the lightheadedness caused by my artificially slow breathing, I was having trouble seeing any type of view for that matter. If I was seeing anything, it was black spots. But then, just when I thought I could not hold on for a second longer, the teacher checked in. “How is your breath? Are you still breathing?” Pause. “Or are you not at the top of the mountain yet? Is it still a climb?” he asked.
Fighting my instinct, I inhaled. An unexpected surge of energy flowed through my body and allowed my muscles to relax a bit. Surely, I was still very much climbing, but I confidently held on for a while longer. After what felt like forever (five slow breaths in practice), we were instructed to let go of the pose and stretch sideways into a lateral triangle position. The release was liberating and juicy. With our heads facing upwards and the left arm stretching down, I gazed up at my right arm reaching towards the ceiling. And then, I felt it: a small peak. The view from here was open and free.
“Our practice on the mat simulates life. When things get tough, we must remember to breathe through them. The difficulty never lasts forever. Who knows, there might be an unexpected wonderful view at the end of this challenging path. And if it is ever too much, take a break and rest. That is always available for you. Don’t push too far beyond your physical boundaries.” I noticed that the teacher’s instructions were as useful to life outside the yoga studio as they were to the practice itself. The entire class felt like a metaphorical mirror to my life. Could it be just a coincidence, or was I somehow guided to this class without knowing it?
Right before my mind dragged me once again into a chain of over-analytical existential thoughts, the teacher asked “Can you be here? Are you awake and aware of the sensations of your body?” And for what felt like the first time, I noticed that my constant thoughts removed my awareness from my body. I was constantly disconnected. I wondered how long it had been since I was fully present in my body. It felt like an eternity. Has it been so since I stopped dancing ten years ago?
The flow of the class slowed down and, with it, the intensity of the practice. The teacher guided us through a series of sitting positions. As we twisted and stretched, I felt my heart rate lowering and I was able to regain hold of the rhythm of my natural breath. Immersed in deep breathing, my attention shifted from my head into my body. For the first time in months, if not years, I felt the sensation of a slightly quiet mind. How liberating.
The class wrapped up with the traditional ‘savasana’ or ‘corpse pose’. The teacher noted that after doing we must also not-do, which is why we lie motionless at the end of every class. Before the end, we sat once more in a cross-legged position with our hands pressed together. As if praying, the teacher concluded “May our practice give us clarity in our mind, clarity in our speech, and openness in our heart. Namaste.”
Breathe in, breathe out. I sat there for a while longer as if floating on a cloud in an invisible bubble of peace. My mind was quiet. I felt as if I just experienced a spa treatment, or a therapy session, or an exorcism. The magic of class slowly evaporated as chatter picked up. Around me, mats were being cleaned and removed, bringing the large room back to its empty state. A few individuals remained seated, seemingly floating in the same tranquil bubble. I began to understand what the fuss was all about, why people continuously turn to yoga. The practice allows one to consciously experience the wondrous sensation of liberation from stress and difficulty in 90 minutes. I felt relief, accomplishment, and space. And for a fleeting second, before I got up and left the room, I didn’t feel so lost. For a short moment there, I found myself, sitting on a yoga mat, just breathing.
Over the years, De Nieuwe Yogaschool turned into my small bubble of tranquility; a place where I could find myself when the storms of the outer world threatened to tip me over. A few weeks ago, during a rare, yet harsh, Dutch heatwave, I returned to that big room after local Covid-19 restrictions had loosened enough for it to reopen. The new regulations did not allow the empty space to fill up as much it did before the Coronavirus disrupted our lives. I was elated to be back nonetheless. My yoga routine had faded during months of shutdown and I was apprehensive to tally the damage.
Despite the hot unventilated room and my silent wishes, the teacher insisted on guiding us through a ruthless yoga flow that included everything from side planks and pushups to balance poses and handstands. His animated tone almost made up for the drenched yoga mats. The heat made the sweat running into my eyes so excessive–it burned. At one point I even noticed the black mascara I applied earlier that day running down my cheeks. Keeping my eyes open was nearly impossible. But this time, keeping my balance was no longer such a challenge, even after losing touch with my routine. I was surprised to feel my legs strong and steady below me. So I surrendered to the circumstances and continued moving with my eyes closed. It’s better to observe my inner view like this anyway, I thought to myself.
Three years separate these two classes, and I am still climbing; both on and off the yoga mat. As with every journey that grows unpredictably long, I let go of and lost most of what I started out with. My continuous climb has stripped me down to my core, just as that hot yoga class had stripped the painted mask off my face. Three years after that first class, I find myself in complete wilderness, without a compass, and the enduring difficulty is the only clue signaling that I am indeed heading upward. But, as time goes by, I notice that my footing grows stable and my breath remains even and steady. I don’t lose my balance as often, and when I do, I regain it a bit faster every time. I learn to listen to the sensations of my body that tell me when it’s time to rest and when it's time to move on. And I am constantly unveiling the many triggers of my mind. But perhaps most importantly, I have learned to surrender to the unpaved path as it unfolds before me. I am no longer so eager to reach the top of the mountain.
Yesterday, a subtitle on a book cover at an airport bookshop asked me “Are you lost or are you exploring?” The simple question magically offered a fresh perspective; without a clear destination, I can no longer be lost. Perhaps, I am just freely wandering and exploring what lies far beyond the beaten track. Maybe now, I can fully enjoy the beauty of whatever may come along the way without glossing over it in haste. Maybe now, I can simply walk my own way to the beat of my inner rhythm. Because now, I know how to check in with my breath if I were to lose my-self in the wilderness again. So for now, I continue climbing.
Breathe in, breathe out...
Art by Michael Whelan - 'EdgeDancer'