Growing up in a family of five girls, all born within eight years, I learned to act in ways that pleased others, which led to a pattern of storing anger and sadness in my body. It was an unconscious kind of pattern. I found exercise to be a helpful stress relief as I became a young adult. The younger me seemed to be always focused on doing, and I felt like I had to be moving, always.
My 40th year was not an easy one. I was going through a divorce when I learned that my mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She later passed away. Facing such devastating losses in such a short period led to my feeling like I was standing in quicksand some days. The grief would overcome me, and I was not able to move.
Shortly after my mom died, I had started walking with some girlfriends. I thought I was slowing down my life, but this exercise outlet still had a competitive feel. I injured my back after our second half-marathon—to the point of being unable to walk on my right foot. Some days I wasn't able to stand upright fully and other days I stayed in bed due to pain. I spent years in rehabilitation, all the while not being able to relieve my stress through my normal exercise routine.
One day, I got a call from my friend Stephie. She said she was coming to visit me in four days and asked me to find a Bikram yoga studio nearby for us to attend Saturday and Sunday.
Several times in my 30s, friends recommended I try yoga. The thought kind of made me laugh to myself. I couldn't imagine standing still long enough to get through a yoga class. It seemed so slow to me. But, if you know Stephie, you know that it wasn't really a request.
So, there I was, finally about to try yoga—something I'd laughed at for many years.
If you're not familiar with Bikram yoga, it takes place in a 104-degree heated room with 26 postures over a 90-minute period. In my first class, I made it through the first few postures, wondering why everything was so slow. I quickly became very sick to my stomach and lay down on my mat, doing my best not to throw up. I wanted to leave, but the instructor recommended I stay in the room. It felt like Chinese water torture.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was starting a practice of stillness and inching my way toward mindfulness.
We went back the next morning, and I was able to complete a few more postures and felt less sick to my stomach. As I said goodbye to Stephie that afternoon, she directed me to go back to the class every day that week. She didn't say why, just that it was what I needed. I willingly followed her recommendation because I was already starting to feel ever-so-slightly different.
After my fifth day of Bikram yoga, I became very emotional in the early afternoon. I felt a well of tears rising in my throat. I started crying and continued crying all afternoon and into the evening. I didn't even know why I was crying. It was an uncontrollable release of something from my body.
I realize now that my practice of stuffing feelings down inside myself was giving way to something healthier for my body. I woke up the next day and my heart felt lighter and my step was a little more joyful—something I had not remembered feeling in a long time. While my back was a little stiff with some pain, it was minimal compared to what I had been experiencing.
I was drawn back to many more yoga classes from that day forward and added Vinyasa Power Flow to my practice. I've found that each type of yoga serves a different purpose, helping my body in different ways. Every type, however, requires mindfulness and stillness and served to bring me closer to healing.
As my teacher Josh says, yoga is measured in breaths. "No breath, no life, no breath, no yoga," is his mantra. Yoga is not a competition, event, or destination; it is a practice. Through practice, one's focus and agility is altered ever so slightly. As I have continued my yoga practice, I have expanded my ability to be fully present in the moment, not focused on time or what I need to get done that day.
My mind is quiet, as it is solely focused on each muscle holding the posture. The imperceptible movement of my leg in a posture I have been practicing for years fills my heart with a calming, peaceful warmth—a kind of gratitude that I did something for myself.
Nine months ago, my sister Susan (18 months my senior) died suddenly. It was another devastating loss that cut me to my core once again, leading me to question life. On my worst days, my children would tell me to go to yoga. They had watched me navigate difficult job changes and survive more losses of the heart by leaning on my yoga practice.
And while the grieving process continues, I heal more each day from her loss. The mindfulness that I achieve through yoga enables me to move through each day with a little more joy and grace.