Here’s Why I Kept Coming Back.
What I remember most about my first few yoga classes was that tight ache that formed in the middle of my back, right under my shoulders, somewhere around the 20th second of my attempting to sit upright and still without leaning against anything.
It’s really hard to find inner peace when the phrase “comfortable seated pose, my ass” is playing on repeat in your head.
I had just graduated from law school and survived the hell that was the NY Bar exam — just barely. I was enjoying my month-ish off before moving to DC and embarking on my journey as a Big Law associate. And my dear college friend Carolyn, who had discovered the joy of yoga during law school, had recommended that I give it a shot in anticipation of the stress-filled days to come.
I knew I was going to need to do something to manage all the stress everyone kept promising me was on the horizon, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I Googled the nearest yoga studio to my parents’ home in Austin, and signed up for an introductory pass at a studio that shall remain nameless. Let’s just say the name wasn’t particularly creative.
I opened the door and was immediately on high skeptic alert. The place was filled with Indian-ish looking tapestries, Hindu and Buddhist icons, curls of incense smoke, and…a whole bunch of white people, some of whom were dressed like my (Indian) uncles and aunties.
Yeah, my first impression did not bode well. But Carolyn knew me pretty well, and was hardly the hippie dippie type herself. And in addition to recommending that I try yoga, she had gifted me a book about yoga that had been resonating with me. So I figured there had to be something to this yoga business, despite its initial smackings of cultural appropriation and overt religiosity — two things that are very decidedly not my cup of tea.
I walked in, removed my shoes, and went to the front desk to check in. And was immediately struck by just how kind everyone was. I was greeted with genuine smiles and patient explanations, particularly when I explained that this was my first yoga class. Ok, things were looking up.
In truth, all I really remember about that first class was being asked to sit still in a “comfortable seat” for far longer than I thought any human could possibly comfortably sit. And to this day when I think about those first classes, the ghost of that backache comes back. Woof.
I do remember that it was a relief to finally get moving after that initial seated period. And that there were a few things that we did that felt kind of good. But there were certainly no earth-shattering revelations, nor did I feel like this was IT, I had found MY THING.
But I’m not a quitter. And, as with most things, I figured I would need to try it more than once to fully experience it. I was in town for a couple more weeks, so I thought what the hell, let me give it a few more tries.
So I went back. And something pretty magical happened. Things that we had done in that first class felt easier! I could go a little deeper, hold a little longer, stretch a little further. After just ONE class!
Now here’s the thing you need to know about me — I have NEVER been an athletic person. Not for lack of trying, mind you. I spent my childhood and adolescence desperately trying to find a physical activity at which I excelled. From ballet to tennis to basketball to gymnastics to a *very* short-lived attempt at track & field…nothing stuck. I sucked at every. single. thing. I did enjoy a small amount of success with Tae Kwondo — enough for me to waive out of my high school’s dreaded phys ed requirement, but not much beyond that. College and law school were peppered with many attempts at becoming a gym rat and a wide range of group fitness classes, but again, nothing really stuck.
This was doubly frustrating for me. For one thing, growing up a curvy girl in a culture that values skinny girls is never easy. And I can’t even tell you which was worse on that front: attending a public school in TX known for its excellent athletic program and therefore full of excellently athletic girls, or growing up south Asian. But it wasn’t just about my own special dose of teenage low self-esteem. It was also the fact that I excelled fairly effortlessly at everything else I tried. (I mean that as matter-of-fact-ly and non-arrogantly as it can possibly be taken.) I got straight A’s without trying, was the fastest reader and best speller in my grade, was a choir section leader all throughout school, made it to Nationals my first year on the debate team, etc. etc. Nerd Alert like whoa. I worked hard at those things, yes, but success was almost always a given. But no matter how hard I tried to be good at *anything* physical, it just wouldn’t happen for me.
So this feeling of physical accomplishment, of actual progress, was not only new but incredibly exciting! And I was hooked. At last, I had found something physical that I could succeed at! Of course, I would soon come to drastically redefine my idea of “success”, but that’s a different blog post altogether.
So at first it was all about the physical stuff. I felt good and it was exciting to learn new poses and make progress.
But then I started to notice something really interesting. I was always in a REALLY good mood after I took a yoga class. And usually for awhile afterwards. And, more importantly, when I didn’t take class, I found that I was much more irritable and generally unhappy.
Well, I like being in a good mood. And definitely prefer it to being irritable and unhappy. So I started going more often, and making it a part of my regular schedule, a routine. And just generally reveling in the fact that I had apparently found the secret to happiness!
And then, someone broke my heart. In retrospect, there was nothing particularly exceptional about that breakup. (Guy meets Girl. Guy dumps Girl b/c his family disapproves for stupid religious reasons. Guy gets back together with Girl b/c he still actually likes her. Guy & Girl break up mutually but stay inseparable and promise they will always be the best of friends. Guy meets Someone New and tells Girl to get out of his life forever. Guy takes the dog. 10+ years later, Girl wonders why she wasted three years of her life with such a spineless, co-dependent boob. 10+ years later, Girl would like to think she (finally) knows better. At least she hopes so.) Though of course at the time I felt that my world had collapsed. I was desperately treading water in a mire of sadness, doing my best to keep my head above the darkness.
And that was when I really started working with intentions in my yoga practice. Luckily, I practiced at a studio that encouraged us to set an intention at the beginning of every practice. It was an instruction I had never really paid attention to before, but now that I felt that my life was so sorely disappointing me, I decided to give it a try. Nothing else was working, so why not this?
At first, my intention was simply to let go of the past and cheer up. And each time I came to the mat, it worked a little bit. And a little bit more. I left each practice feeling slightly better, with a clearer head and a stronger heart.
While I definitely credit the support of my wonderful friends, my return to an intense workout and self-care regimen, and the healing power of time with my emergence from that dark period, I know that my yoga practice was absolutely instrumental in getting me through with grace, dignity, and a newfound strength of character and clarity of purpose.
And I carried on happily with that newfound strength of character, clarity of purpose, and tri-weekly yoga practice for about three years or so.
Until my world truly did collapse.
In January of 2011, my father suffered a heart attack and underwent emergency open heart surgery. The surgery went just fine, but his post-op care was botched and he ended up in a coma for nearly a month before we had to make the difficult decision to let him go.
This is not something I talk about. (Please don’t ask me. I will say “I really don’t want to talk about it” and change the subject.) Still, 7+ years later, this is not something I can bring myself to talk about without breaking down. Even writing this has reduced me to tears. There are very few people in my life who know even this little bit of detail about what happened to him. The only people who will probably ever know the full scope of the hell that I suffered during that month were the people who were there by my side as it all unfolded.
In that month, I learned the true meaning of family. I watched my beloved cousins and uncles and aunts (nearly all physicians or in the medical world somehow) drop their lives and join my mother, my little brother, and me in Austin. They were by my side at the hospital, combing through medical records and translating them for me at a level of depth and clarity that my father’s doctors would never bother to provide, making sure I ate and slept and even laughed from time to time, holding me as I wept, helping me make the difficult decisions when the time came, helping me make the difficult arrangements when the time came…
My father was my best friend in the entire world, and his loss broke me in ways that I don’t think will ever fully heal.
When it was all over, I ran away to Costa Rica for a month. I unplugged from my life, I cried into the ocean every day, I gazed hazily at the stars through salty lashes every night, begging for relief from the deep ache that filled my soul.
And by some miraculous coincidence— the kind of miraculous coincidence that will make one believe that surely there must be some Greater Power out there running this show — I ended up in a place with a wonderful, wise, German yoga teacher whose style was the perfect mix of no-nonsense practicality and gentle spirituality for me. I practiced with her twice a day, 6 days a week, and in that time got my first glimpse of the true depths of what the practice of yoga has to offer.
Yoga as catharsis, a release for the flood of grief that had overtaken my heart, my soul, and my world. Yoga as the the source of the spiritual guidance that I’d always craved, that my family’s religion had never been able to provide me. Yoga as a way to find clarity around — and sometimes even answers to — the many, many questions that fill my daily life.
Eventually, I had to return to my “real” life. But I returned a changed woman. I returned and set into motion the chain of events that would ultimately lead to my obtaining my teaching certification, leaving my legal career, opening my yoga studio, and finding what I believe to be my true purpose in life. And while I am absolutely thrilled with the direction my life has taken since then, there is no question I would give it all up without a second’s hesitation to have my father back.
But if yoga has taught me anything, it is the importance of letting go.
Letting go of my attachment to my ideal outcomes, the way I think things should be or are going to be. Letting go of regrets, of grudges, of blame. Letting go of the past, focusing on the present, and always moving forward. These are all lessons that I continue to struggle with, and I suspect that that struggle will be lifelong. Because whether you’re ready for it to or not, time will march on. The world will still turn. Life will continue. There really is only one absolute truth in this life:
This, too, shall pass.
Now, 10+ years after that first yoga class, finding a “comfortable seat” actually is comfortable for me. And every now and then, when I find myself in that comfortable seat, I think back to those early, back-achy classes and give a little smile of gratitude — for how far I’ve come, for all the times that my yoga practice has buoyed and even rescued me, and that I didn’t give up on myself or this practice that began as just a workout and ended up completely transforming my life.