How I Turned My Obstacles Into Opportunities

I recently climbed to the top of the tectonic plate divide in Iceland. The ridge that separates the North American plate from the European plate was a steep climb up a gravel path filled with stones and lava. Before that, I'd ascended a huge wooden staircase in the rain to get to the top of the vista overlooking the Gulfloss waterfall. Earlier still, I had trekked across rocky, wet terrain, stepping carefully between geysers, running when I feared I was in the path of a water explosion. The day was filled with awe and wonder, with nature and breathtaking beauty.

The next day was filled with pain. Since I had surgery on a herniated disc a few years ago, any kind of hiking or inclined walking has caused intense pain to my lower back in the days that follow. Being in Iceland in no way saved me from that pain, and I woke up feeling stiff and sore, with a severe pain hangover from the previous day’s activities.

The beauty of what I'd seen receded into the back of my mind as my thoughts became, Why did I try to keep up with everyone, knowing how much it would hurt? Why did I push myself to go faster, to ignore my own pacing instincts, to not stop for breaks to stretch and relieve the pressure the exertion was putting on my back?

When I stepped onto my yoga mat shortly after waking, the pain and the regret intensified. As I forced myself into a down dog, I blinked back the tears that formed, hoping also to blink back the questions that repeated, over and over, in my head. The same questions that plagued me at other points during this yoga retreat — when my nut allergy calls me out as someone who can’t eat in the same restaurant as the group, or when I’m too tired to go out at night with everyone. Why can’t I do what other people can do? Why do I have to be different? Why can’t I just be normal?

Feeling different has always left me feeling inadequate.

I considered leaving the yoga class early. I couldn’t do anything, anyway. I was bound to about four positions that didn't hurt, and they were vastly different from what anyone else was doing. It should have been easy to just roll up my mat and quietly exit the room.

Except we had begun the class learning more about Ganesh, the Hindu Lord of Beginnings, both placer and remover of obstacles. I didn’t understand how he could be in charge of both the placing and removing. I had drifted in and out of the lessons that we were supposed to learn from Ganesh, concentrating on my own very present pain obstacle instead, when the teacher paused to say a sentence slowly and deliberately:

“The difference between an obstacle and an opportunity is our mind.”

I lifted my head up from the mat, where I'd been chastising myself for being sedentary while everyone else moved through their practice, and this time I really listened as I heard her repeat, "The difference between an obstacle and an opportunity is our mind."

Could it really be as easy as reframing what we think is an obstacle as an opportunity instead? Could we really control how we viewed ourselves, and what we faced, and find peace instead of struggle?

I considered this, as I remained motionless, my knees pulled tightly into my chest. Could there be an opportunity right here, alone on my mat, silent while the activity went on without me? I realized that this was my first quiet moment since arriving in Iceland — and I realized instantly how desperately I needed it. At that revelation, my body immediately released some of the pressure, anxiety and frustration that had built throughout the morning.

A week before, alone on vacation in Santorini, Greece, I had spent most of my time in silence, my mind calming to a level I don’t experience in my often chaotic life at home. I moved slowly in Santorini, at my own pace. I stopped hearing the frenetic noise around me, and the noise in my own head, and instead felt peaceful, and calm. It was a feeling I was unaware I had an ability to create for myself.

I recall that feeling on my mat now, in Iceland, and I am grateful that I'm able to recreate it when it was unconsciously so sorely missed. Maybe if I'd been able to participate fully in the yoga practice, I would not have realized that slowing down was crucial to feeling better. Maybe if I hadn’t needed a moment of pause in between the movement and the chatter in my mind, I might not have realized how beautiful that moment was. Maybe this is how it happens, turning obstacle into opportunity.

Here is the opportunity: reclaiming the stillness that my body and mind require.

Here is the opportunity: practicing the self-love that so often eludes me, and giving myself what I need to feel good.

Here is the opportunity: recognizing that often what makes us “not normal” is what makes us special.

Here is the opportunity: removing the obstacle simply by acknowledging it, accepting it, and finding beauty in it instead.

It really was all in my attitude, there to reframe at any given moment. It helped enable me to let go of both the pain and the expectations I had for myself, and enjoy the experience of what I can do. I may be different, in yoga or in life, and that is OK. I can sit on my mat, and I can find stillness within myself, and I can allow myself to be at peace.

It may not always be so easy, but today it was.

And that is the real opportunity.

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