[Published on Elephant Journal on January 4, 2011.]
Sometimes it’s easy to forget. I wasn’t always this happy. I still have my moments of despair but they are now accompanied by the soothing presence of the witness, that unnameable thing always watching this hilarious, melodramatic movie that is Michelle’s life. The witness sees my depression, exhilaration, boredom, lethargy, bliss and surprise crop up and it knows: This too shall pass.
As long as the witness is there, I am unstoppable. I will not wallow. I will not succumb to weeks of dark depression, to the torturous nights of cyclical anxiety that nearly killed me in my twenties.
The sustained, devoted practice of yoga and mindfulness has freed me from mental illness, enabled me to get off the prescription pills erudite psychiatrists had sentenced me to pop for the rest of my life, and given me the priceless gift of embodying the present moment without grasping at it.
I have few friends whom I’ve known longer than yoga. I started practicing yoga, like many of you, for its immediate physical benefits. Only I was twelve. It was February 1993, and I was a bored, diligent middle schooler.
Now I look at the worldwide yoga wildfire and I’m grateful that the practice is spreading to so many corners of the globe, even in its sometimes bastardized forms. I’m also grateful that it was basically unheard of in Round Rock, Texas in the early nineties. It was this brilliant secret I kept to myself.
One serendipitous afternoon, I plucked a paperback from my parents’ shelf in the game room upstairs. The unassuming book that would irrevocably change my life had an awkward title: Richard Hittleman’s 28-Day Yoga Exercise Plan. The book had clearly never been read. It had no dog-ears, no highlights, no crack in the spine.
I had never heard the word yoga before. I had a beginner’s mind, truly and authentically. Something I’ve tried to recreate ever since, to some avail, sometimes. Hittleman sold the yoga. He knew what the American housewife of the 1970s wanted and he packaged it in the cleverest way. His book’s back cover offered “the opportunity to look lovelier, feel better and remain younger – in just 28 of the most important days of your life.”
Even as a preteen, I bought it. I snuck off to my Pepto Bismol pink bedroom and began to read. To practice. In dozens of step-by-step photographs, Mr. Hittleman’s waif-like model led me through twenty-eight increasingly challenging routines. The first pose on Day 1 is called “Chest Expansion” and purported to “develop and firm your chest and bust.” Don’t be fooled, ladies. It opens your shoulders and heart but will not increase your cup size. Then there was the cobra and the seated forward bend. Just three simple poses and I was hooked.
I devoted myself to the 28-day program. Very quickly, I could feel a shift within myself. From the get-go, it was more than physical. I mean, I was four months shy of turning 13. I was on the cross country running team at school. I was in tip-top shape already. And yeah, it was really cool to teach myself to balance in a headstand and to witness my spine and hamstrings gain elasticity in a matter of weeks. But more importantly, I felt the thrill of pride at having the self-discipline to practice every day. Whenever I felt like procrastinating on homework or chores, I would think of my nightly perseverance in yoga and choose to tackle my undesirable tasks.
The first thing yoga taught me is that breath is life. Breathing deeply and slowly naturally calms us, connects us, moves prana (life energy) around our physical bodies. Just listening to the breath, like waves in the ocean, could be the cure.
Naturally, it takes practice. We are a culture of shallowness — superficial images, celebrity obsession, constant stimulation, instant gratification, shallow breathing. Learning to listen to our breath is the building block of all meditation and yoga techniques. It is the first and last freedom.
These days, eighteen years later, I feel more mindful and compassionate than ever… most of the time. And the days I don’t, I am getting better and better at not engaging in negativity. All I really have, and all I really need, is a daily practice of yoga schmoga. Inhabiting this intense, joyful and confused moment. Here. Now. And, at the time of this writing, I am healthy and sane, thanks be to Yoga.
So, yeah… yoga is my salvation. This practice continues to save my sanity, daily. I’m not talking about touching your toes or executing an award-winning downward dog. Even if you never want to contort your body into a single stinkin’ asana, if you can be genuinely, consistently thankful for the fact that air is always entering and exiting your lungs — from the moment of birth to the last exhale of this lifetime — you are on the path of enlightenment.
Yes. We are all on that path, aware of it or not. Some of us go-getters try to sprint, to reach the end, only to discover that there is no end. It’s an everlasting path of suffering, attachment to the people and things and sensations we like, shrinking away from the individuals and emotions that repulse us or scare us sh*tless.
With awareness of these über-human patterns, the path can be transformed. We can stay in the middle, be centered, be balanced, find equanimity and joy in the ordinary. But along the way, there will be pain, grasping, fear. These are inevitable. We will lose our balance a zillion times. But we who persist will prevail, moment to moment, breath by breath.