Growing up an athlete, I learned my body in component parts:
I needed lean biceps to rein in my horse. Or, I needed powerful quads to propel myself off the wall after a flip turn. Strong shoulders were essential for thousands of yards of freestyle and butterfly. And calves tight and clenched as fisted hands helped push me that last mile further down the road during a long, arduous jog.
It doesn’t help that, growing up a woman, I was also bombarded by magazines that explained how exactly I could firm up my abs, or how I could obtain that high, well-rounded bottom, or how I could make certain I’d rid my triceps of flab, or how I could play up just my eyes with makeup while leaving the rest of my face clean, “natural.”
Bits and pieces, I was told—work on one bit and one piece, isolate one muscle group, hone in on one, lone sliver of limb, dramatize one feature, and work it right, and make it perfect.
Rarely did I think of my body as one, complete moving thing. Rarely did I think of how all those component parts actually worked together, let alone fit together.
There, I learned the inhale fuels the stretch and the exhale feeds the compression. I learned how, by tightening my quads, I could loosen my hamstrings. I began to understand how my forward bends built and strengthened my backward bends. I was taught how the ankles line up to the knees, which line up to the hips, which line up to the spine, to create a clean, solid line of muscle and might. It took a good two years before I began to fully understand how what I put into my body—from fluids to food to too little sleep—grossly influenced what it was able to put out. I learned the body followed the eyes; the breath led the heart; and the mind, sometimes, needed let out to pasture to rest, to recover, to rebuild while the rest of the system worked for awhile.
Yoga taught me that one thing builds on another to create a whole—the same way one thing can topple everything, and break it apart.
Tonight, in a particularly sweaty and soul-twisting class, the teacher kept reminding us that we don’t come to yoga to gain anything—not strength, not flexibility, not peace, not a better waistline. Because, in truth, we have everything we need already within us. The yoga just strips away the excess, the unnecessary. Yoga sweeps out the clutter. Yoga helps us see and appreciate the whole of ourselves.
Yoga wipes clear the misperception that we are not whole to begin with.
I thought this lesson fascinating and quite fitting, given I haven’t been feeling all that whole or even semi-put together these days.
Case in point: When we set our intention at the beginning of class, my goal was “be strong and love myself.” Usually, my intention is to let go or to forgive or to try or to relax. Fairly basic. ”Be strong and love myself” even gave me pause—but I knew I was thinking that because I’ve felt frayed, separated, my heart in one place and my head in another, my knees hurting while my elbows kept cracking, and all the while, berating and blaming myself for a seemingly endless series of disappointments.
I spent the entire 90 minutes of class awash in sweat, breath, heat, and energy. I took every instruction and applied it. I listened to every last word. I broke when I needed to break, and I powered through when I least expected myself able. I paid attention to and doted on every last fiber and inch of all 5’11″ of me.
When I walked out of the studio, I suddenly remembered my intention. And I thought to myself how I have always been strong—I will always be strong. It is innate within me. As is love. Simple as that. The fact that I thought I’d lost or needed a replacement of either is a testament to the intensity and pressure of these last few weeks. Perhaps even these last few months.
The truth is this, though: It takes more than one yoga class to repair the damages, of any kind, but I am convinced that we keep going back not because we want our arms to show more sculpt and our butts to show less bounce or our cheeks to grow more hollow.
No—we go back because we begin to crave that clean mirror, that sensation of fullness, of completion, of a whole self seen and appreciated.
We come back to our yoga, time and time again, because it reminds us of who we really are, underneath everything else.
And it is our choice:
Are we brave enough to stand and embrace the all of her?
Yes. I hope the answer is, always, yes.