Photographed above: My beautiful daughter, Madelyn, practices tree pose while standing on the limb of an amazing tree at Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Author’s note: What follows is a highly personal piece I wrote for my recent 200-YTT training. It is important for the reader to understand that yoga is NOT a religion, nor is it affiliated with any certain religion. However, what I have found is that yoga’s tenants, restraints, and practices strongly compliments and enhances my personal faith life. Namaste.
“One of life’s quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful . . ..”—Norman Mclean
“Eventually, all thing merge into one, and a river runs through it.”—Norman Maclean
“You cannot step into the same river twice.”—Heraclitus
Fortitude. Tenacity. Breath. These were three words I strongly associated with yoga, and for that matter, any fitness or life endeavor, when I first began the journey of yoga teacher training (YTT) at Brown Dog Yoga (BDY), a yoga studio situated alongside the Ohio River in Huntington, WV. Like the ever changing, ever flowing Ohio River, each time I have stepped into the studio at BDY, the experience is different; and thus, I am different now than when I first walked through its door.
I am no longer the same person who whispered, “Fortitude. Tenacity. Breath,” as I walked into BDY for the very first time. Arriving early, I sat in the studio, which was all new to me, fighting the well-practiced negative chatter that has spent years dominating my monkey mind.
“You’re too old and too injured,” alleged doubt.
“In fact, you’re too irrelevant, not fit enough, and certainly nowhere near knowledgeable enough,” droned fear.
“You’ll never fit in, and talk too much, ask too many questions, or do none of those and just freeze,” whispered anxiety.
“You’ll never have time to study, practice, and read—much less still possess the ability to learn. I mean, really, you should just get up and walk out now. Who do you think you are, the next Bryan Kest? Don’t be so arrogant,” added distrust and suspicion.
Still, I remained in the room, frozen, silently chanting my mantra, “Fortitude. Tenacity. Breath.” Bryan Kest videos taught me those words in the 1990s. He was the professional yoga teacher that initially inspired my journey into yoga. Those words clearly worked for him; therefore, I had latched onto that phrase as the flame clings to the log. After all, those three words pretty much summed up large portions of my life. It was how I overcame fears, anxieties, and sorrows.
Nonetheless, I walked out of BDY after that first weekend ready to spread my arms out wide into the crisp, night air and shout to the heavens. Instead, I inhaled deeply, smiled broadly to myself, and felt a new lightness in my step. This was where I supposed to be, and at the right time. I would be okay.
However, like a nagging joint injury that won’t go away, fear, doubt, anxiety, distrust, and suspicion logged frequent flyer miles in the seat of my soul with each new month. Heart palpitations would wake me during the night. My throat squeezed, belly gripped, and my lungs felt small. Still, I whispered my mantra, “Fortitude. Tenacity. Breath.”
Then came the moment I was to teach a lesson for the first time. A percussion section drummed a staccato rhythm in my lungs as a bass drum boomed a brilliant beat in my chest that echoed into my ears, my head, and vibrated my limbs. Fight, flight, or freeze?
Emotion ripped through my third chakra, which is located around the area of the belly button and extends up the bottom tip of the breastbone. It is called the Manipura, which according to The Chopra Center, translates to, “lustrous gem;” yet, this was not what I was feeling. Instead, the sensations of entrapment and abandonment spiraled in my center. I froze, folded, and flopped. Failure was all I could think as tears fought to free themselves.
Fortitude. Tenacity. Breath. Go back. Don’t quit. Keeping trying.
Then, came the first written test in month four. It was over the bones of the body and a few other anatomy terms/references. Life had been busy, and my time for study had been limited. Once again, downpours of panic splattered over me mimicking the winter weather; and, just as the banks of the Ohio River were overflowing with muddy water, so too was my self-doubt spilling out into my now murky manipura.
Was I really meant to be a yoga teacher? Did I really think I could help others when I clearly couldn’t help myself? Would the world end if I never became I yoga teacher? After all, I could finish the program, and at least say my practice had improved, and my knowledge had increased. There was nothing wrong with that.
Surrender. Seek. Soul-search. A new mantra was forming. I began to journal, to meditate, and to pray more. What did I really want to do? This required work and reflection. It also required purposeful, deep three-part breathing that Katrina, our main instructor, strongly encouraged me to practice in a private session.
“Take the breath deep into your belly. Expand it into your ribs and then up into the heart space,” she encouraged. “Really connect with your breath,” she added. And so, I began to practice this way of breathing.
Practice. Progress. Breath. I practiced this three-part breath driving to and from work. My mediation evolved into simply focusing on three-part breathing and remaining open to what arose. Moments of prayer, and even time spent writing, were also filled with three-part breathing. All yoga practices, including the sessions in which I practiced teaching others, began to focus more on three-part breathing.
Soon my desires became clearer. I needed to practice three-part breathing for the rest of my life because that is yoga. “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life . . .. (Genesis 2:7 NIV). This prana, this breath of life can spiral energy, joy, and peace within me, but more importantly, it is my connection to my Creator, my inner light, and my heart.
I now know that yoga is so much more than physical exercise. It is a practice for the body, mind, and soul. It is a practice that occurs both on, and even more so, off the yoga mat. Its observances and restraints ask me to take my practice into my daily life. I feel as if I have barely scratched the surface of yoga and all its interrelated topics in my 200-level YTT. I want to learn more, to understand more, and to gain deeper insight with regard to yoga. Not only that, but I also feel a deep motivation to share this Divine connection with others in the same way in which it has been so graciously shared to me.
Have I lost all feelings of unworthiness, pessimism, and distrust? NO. However, Rich, another instructor at BDY, introduced another mantra in my life, “Progress, not perfection.”
Practice. Progress. Breath. One of the first yamas, tenants, of yoga is ahimsa, or nonviolence. However, as I reflect over the very words I have written, I see that violence, sadly, has enveloped so much of my self-dialogue throughout a large portion of my life. If I have been seeing myself through such a negative, fearful, and judgmental lens, what messages have I subconsciously been projecting onto others? Thus, if I am to truly incorporate this yogic way of life, then I must offer free-will/empowerment, compassion, and forgiveness to myself first in order to fully offer the same to others. This will increase my ability to choose actions, behaviors, and words motivated from a point of genuine love—a practice worth pursuing.
Deborah Adele, author of one my required readings for 200-YTT, The Yamas and Niyamas, states that in the New Testament, the Greeks used a word, splagchnizomai, which is translated to mean compassion. According to Adele, this word means to feel deeply within one’s bowels or inward parts. It was used, she explains, when the Gospel writers wanted to reveal that a person was touched so profoundly by another, that they were deeply and inwardly motivated to take immediate action for the benefit of others. This accurately describes how I now feel about yoga.
Yoga holds up a mirror for me daily. It allows me to see the real me without mucky illusions or ideals of perfection. I am free to feel deeply, to see where I fall short, but to also feel empowered and emboldened to move forward with incremental steps towards progress as I journey through life. Looking at my reflection, I can say, I am enough,which will also increase my ability to convey to others, you are enough. Therefore, I embrace this path of yoga, rather than resist it. I surrender to the unknown—the unknown of each breath, each practice, and even the unknown of this journey.
On the Sunday of month six of YTT, our group practiced a walking meditation alongside the Ohio River. Its rock bed, laid down two-three million years earlier, continuously changes with the unremitting flow of the water. Likewise, its boundaries subtly, and sometimes violently, shift and sway with the rise and fall of the water. It was formed by the confluence of two rivers; and, countless tributaries from six states feed it and influence its ebb and flow. Ultimately, the waters of the Ohio River join with the Mississippi River and its tributaries. In the end, all of this water stretches into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean thus becoming one interconnected body.
That is yoga. It began with one Divine OM over the centuries of time. One breath led to our collective prana, the Ultimate life force, of which I am an interwoven part; bound to all who came before me and all who will follow after my physical body is not longer present. It began with the ultimate Source as a gift of love, and this Divine Providence lights me from within as well as all living beings around the world.
Light. Love. Life.
Surrender. Seek. Soul-search.
Practice. Progress. Path.