The other night, sweat pouring down the back of my shoulders, into the small of my back, while my leg muscles strained to maintain the stance, and I attempted to quiet my short, heavy breath, I finally got it. It suddenly all made sense. This wasn’t the first time I had subjected myself to the intense heat of a hot yoga studio, or my body to the foreign postures associated with the practice, but it was the first time it finally clicked. Parallels between the practice of yoga and the journey of finding fabulous seemed to scream down at me through the silence of the overcrowded studio. As the instructor lead us through the poses, stopping to give more direction or just checking in to see if we were still breathing, I suddenly wondered if he could be referring to my life more than my yoga practice.
This is what he said, and more importantly what it taught me…
Lesson 1: Set an Intention
As is tradition, in most yoga studios, the instructor started the session by encouraging participants to set an intention for the practice. He suggested we consider what we wanted to get out of the hour and asked us to hold that intention clear in our minds, while letting go of everything else. Now, if you’re anything like me, you are used to setting goals with very tangible results. You like to have a scorecard to indicate you were productive or successful or just have something to show for your efforts. So, lying on my back, in that dark, humid room I was challenged to think of a different kind of ambition. I couldn’t very well get my laundry done, finish writing a chapter of my book, or even run the errands on my to do list. I couldn’t busy myself with all the tasks that normally pass for being ‘productive’. As I found that brief moment of silence between the inhalation and exhalation of our collective breathing, I considered my options. I could intend to let go of all the frustrations of my day. I could give myself a break, and leave all that stress outside the studio for one full hour. I could intend to increase my flexibility, knowing full well the benefits that would translate beyond this class. Or, I could intend to move through the postures with a sense of gratitude for the gift of this time spent recharging my energy.
Contemplating what that intention could be for the next hour, I realized the utility of this ritual for living a fabulous life. What if every morning, I awoke with the conscious decision to set an intention for the day. Not just goals, but intentions. What if I choose to have an overarching intention that spoke more to the way I would ‘be’, rather than spending so much time on what I would ‘do’. For example, if my intention for the day were to connect with people on a more meaningful level, what would that look like? What would a business call sound like? How would I show up in a collaborative, brainstorming session? How would that change the meaning or relevance of a chapter I was writing on purposeful living? How much more love could I express during a phone call to my grandmother?
Even though the habits that pull me toward the busier kind of goals are ingrained in my being, I also know that creating new ones is possible. The more yoga classes I attend, the more practice I’ll have setting intentions, and the more likely that intention setting habit could spill over into a new way of being.
Lesson 2: Listen to your body
As any conscientious yoga instructor does, this one reminded us throughout the session to listen to our own bodies. He spoke about the importance of being aware if one side of your body was tighter than the other, to feel whether your breath was labored or effortless, and to recognize when you had gone deep enough into a pose as to not harm yourself. Lifting into a downward-facing dog, I immediately became aware of the tightness in the back of my calves and the pain in my wrists, associated with supporting my weight. Discomfort transitioned to empowerment as I became mindful of my ability to tweak my position. I was able to lessen the weight on my wrist and give my calves a much needed stretch. Awareness… such a simple solution!
Obeying the instructor, and more importantly my body, I deepened the pose and contemplated how well I listen to my body outside of this studio. Have I gotten better at listening to the signals my body sends? I was frustrated and dissatisfied in my job for years, long before I made the ‘adjustments’ to lessen the strain. If I found myself in that situation again, how long would it take me to adjust, or change course? How does my body react when things bring me energy versus when they drain my energy? Do I notice? Do I modify my position?
And so, this becomes another lesson or preferred habit in finding fabulous. Listening to my body and being more aware of what signals it is sending me, can translate into make choices that are better aligned with my desired state of being.
Lesson 3: Start from where you are
Looking around that dimly lit room, I noticed the variance in skill level of my classmates. From the slim, athletic-looking woman on my right, striking a perfect dancer’s pose, to the slightly over-weight, and apparently inflexible, guy behind me, I started to assess where I ranked. As if reading my mind, the instructor started coaching us to find our ability of each pose and start there. Demonstrating a few different levels of dancer’s pose, he suggested we concentrate on where we were at, and work to improve from there.
Fighting my competitive urge to dislocate my hip, in order to stretch my foot toward the height of the pliable ballerina on my right, I heeded the instructor’s comments. It didn’t really matter where my ability was in reference to anyone else in the room. My practice wasn’t about them. Whether I succeed in reaching my goals is about being a better “me” today than I was yesterday. It doesn’t matter if that is a yoga pose, or my ability to write a best-selling novel. Both of those things require me to do the work, and both require I start exactly where I am. Spending my efforts stretching my skills a little bit every day will be far more effective than exerting any energy worrying about whether I match up to someone else’s level.
Lesson 4: Breathe through the tough parts
The quadriceps of the supporting leg in my ‘dancer’s pose’ started to shake and the foot bones twitch as the instructor ranted on about the importance of breathing through the move. As we held the pose, longer than we wanted to, he asked that we focus on deepening our breath and our concentration on it. Making an effort to lengthen the inhalation and the exhalation, not only distracts from the discomfort, but also increases the body’s ability to relax into the pose. The result after several breaths, and perhaps years of practice, is increased flexibility and full attainment of the desired pose.
Feeling slightly contradictory to the lesson on listening to your body, I challenged myself to accept the message he was sending in that moment. I tried to ignore the passing thought that my body was saying, “wouldn’t we be more comfortable on the couch, in front of the TV?” Breathing through the move is all about the discomfort of growth. The challenge is finding that balance between a healthy discomfort of growth, and the unhealthy strain or stress of not listening to your body.
Reflecting on how this concept has shown up in my journey of finding a fabulous life, I think about the first few months after I left my corporate job. Walking into a networking event where I knew no one was a long held pose. I had to breathe through the discomfort of introducing myself to strangers, as someone who didn’t know what they were doing with their life. It was uncomfortable, but I felt myself stretching and growing with each new introduction. Compared to, say the pain of sitting through one more, seemingly pointless, corporate meeting, the experience had the impact of strengthening me.
And so, I take that lesson with me every time I start to fear doing something new. Breathe through the discomfort, and relax into the new space created by the effort, and growth will be inevitable.
Lesson 5: Be here, now.
Ending the yoga session in the traditional corpse pose, I reflected on the evening’s lessons. Perhaps the most important, overarching lesson of the night was in being in the moment. Trying to manipulate and twist your body into the various poses takes a lot of focused effort. Once you are in that pose, it takes more deliberation to move your focus away from the pose to concentrate on your breathing. There is little time or space to think about anything else. It is one of the best ways I have found to release your mind from ruminating on many of life’s other stresses (if for only an hour). Staying in the ‘now’ allowed me to not only get the most out of the session physically and mentally, but also solidified fundamental principles I can use in other areas of my life.
As I rolled up my mat, packed my bag and exited the studio into the dark, cool Los Angeles evening, I felt a rush of gratitude and peace wash over me. Strolling down the sidewalk, satisfied smile across my face, I let my newfound wisdom mingle with my renewed sense of energy. Amazing what a little time and a lot of sweat can do to refresh your spirit!
(This article was originally posted as "Sweating My Way to Fabulous" in 2014 on lisadadd.com and was brought to my attention by Joanna, who has written an Ultimate Beginners Guide to Yoga.)
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