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I first connected with Yulady Saluti at an Off the Mat charity event in Atlantic City over the holidays. I was struck by her big brown eyes, her super short hair and her gentle, calming touch during adjustments. You know how sometimes a stranger can put their hand on your back during child’s pose and you just sink into your mat like an actual child being comforted? That’s what she did for me.
Somehow we put it together through social media (of course) that we have mutual friends, and realized that she teaches close the town where I grew up, where I would be visiting this week. Taking one of her classes was a no brainer.
I pushed aside my exhaustion from a long week in New York City, and braved the New Jersey snowstorm to show up and practice with her. I knew from the second she smiled in greeting at me that it was completely the right decision. The owner of the studio mentioned that since I had never done hot yoga, I might be most comfortable in the front of the room where it is a little cooler. Right in front of the mirror.
You see, my regular teacher at my regular classes in Santa Monica closes the curtains so that we aren’t looking into the mirror while we practice. We can spend the hour focusing on how our bodies feel, rather than how they look. She acts instead as our mirror, reminding us when our jaws are clenched, or our lips are pressed too tightly together. Her view of us is softer than our own; it’s filtered through kindness, through love.
So I had forgotten what yoga was like practicing in front of a mirror. I forget until just now, when I’m in an unfamiliar class with unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar studio that is 2,500 miles away from what is familiar.
I hate looking in the mirror.
Maybe it’s because I don’t like to watch myself practice, don’t like to see the misalignments and the legs that don’t lift very high.
Maybe it’s because I don’t like to see the 10 extra pounds that I’ve been carrying around since Christmas, a graphic reminder of my lack of self-control.
Maybe it’s because I’m worried that everyone else there sees those same things about me in that same mirror.
Of course, maybe they’re not looking at me at all. They could be seeing their own flaws. Or the lucky ones, they could be seeing their own beauty. Yulady, a breast cancer survivor, could be seeing her body as I do—bearing scars but so, so strong; her beautiful face now completely unobstructed by long hair, perhaps even more lovely. They are the lucky ones, the ones who see the beauty reflected in the mirror.
This preoccupation with what I think I see in the mirror threatens the joy in my practice, stuck as I am in my own selfish, torturous thoughts.
And then, about 40 minutes into this 75 minute self-esteem annihilation, something in me shifts. I think, I can’t possibly do another vinyasa; I’m not even sure I can make it into child’s pose. I’m sweaty, I’m tired, I’m broken.
The beauty of yoga, for me, comes in the breakdown.
When the ego finally surrenders and releases. When the heart moves forward, past the head, and opens. When it becomes about the unity and not the self. This is when the magic happens.
Now is when I can focus on what matters. I can think about Yulady and all that her body has been through in treatment, and how incredibly resilient she is. I can think about the little girl we dedicated our practice to today, just diagnosed with brain cancer, and what she will soon endure. I can think about everyone around me, without comparing the ease of their headstands or their superior arm balances; I can just see them.
I can see what matters.
When I look back into the mirror, the 10 extra pounds are still there, the hip is still not properly aligned, and the legs are definitely not lifted any higher. But what I see now is different.
I see the open face, and the open heart. I see the body that is capable and flexible, fluid and powerful. I see the beauty all around me.
And the beauty in me.