I recently returned from a family trip to Utah and I practiced yoga, a lot of yoga. Not the outer yoga, the shapes we make with our bodies, but the inner yoga.
For those of us who are practicing yogis and yoginis or have witnessed a friend or loved one who practices yoga, we know that yoga is more than just the physical practice, the asana. Yoga is about cultivating an inner strength, an inner quiet and stillness, peace and equanimity, balancing our emotional state by finding equilibrium, and so much more.
When we face life’s challenging moments, we tap into and harness the inner strength and balance we cultivate on the mat. We remain steady. We use our yoga as we face life’s struggles, hardships, challenges, conflicts, and storms. Our yoga gets us through, we remain calm and still, and we come out on the other side just as we entered: at peace, tranquil.
In the weeks and months that led up to this family trip, I was filled with a sense of dread. I knew this would be the “ultimate challenge.” This trip would be the first time in over eight years, other than a few brief moments three years ago, that I would be interacting and spending time with my older sister. This would be the first time in the presence of my sister and now 14 year old nephew since the “ka-boom,” of which I received no acknowledgement or support from my sister. I carried that awareness with me to Utah like a heavy weight on my heart.
Why had so many years passed? Why did I regard this as the “ultimate challenge”? I struggled with my sister’s selfishness and self-focus as well as her obsessive nature. I found it incredibly uncomfortable to be around her husband whose hardened exterior and fragmented interpersonal skills made it difficult to interact with him and be in his company. Because of this, I stopped making the effort and stopped reaching out.
Over the expanse of eight years my sister became extremely emotionally detached and disconnected. From where I sat, she seemed numb. When my mom told my sister that my relationship had ended, my sister said “oh” and that was it. Silence when she found out my dad died. Absence from my dad’s memorial service. Absence when my mom re-married. My sister’s absence and detachment from the family, as well as her numbness, left me feeling increasingly embittered, angered, and abandoned.
Why did I even go considering all the heart-ache I carried and what I knew would likely be more discomfort and lack of acknowledge around the painful end of my relationship? I did it for my nephew, whom I love and cherish. I missed out on too many years of his life and I really wanted an opportunity to have time together, to create memories. I also wanted to share with him what had happened in my life, to give him insight and understanding around the devastating loss of “my person.” And I did it because my sister reached out and I wanted to honor that effort.
Though I knew this visit would be the “ultimate challenge,” I also knew I was strong enough to do it. I knew I had the inner strength and a whole new set of tools and skills to draw from. I knew I had the capacity and ability to stay present in body, mind, and spirit, to stay present in the experience, whatever it may be. Indeed it was a challenge. Like I said, I practiced a lot of yoga, sans mat.
What did my yoga practice look like?? In moments of discomfort, I steadied myself, I remained grounded. In moments of stress, I breathed peace throughout the depths of my body. When I encountered selfishness and stubbornness, I practiced flexibility. When I witnessed obsession, I was patient. In the face of conflict and strife, I remained serene. When I was met with coolness, I poured out warmth. When I came up against hardness, I embodied softness. When I treaded near and into differing views, opinions, and beliefs, I stayed open and I embraced the spirit of harmony, which to me means to “accept and respect” differences. When I faced resistance and dominance, I remained graceful and countered with a strength rooted in thoughtfulness and compassion. When I was not met emotionally, I bridged the gap. When expressions of love were absent, I presented the gift of love freely.
“Be the yoga” was one of my survival phrases. I said this to myself often. Being the yoga was hard work, a very challenging practice. I cried more than once, exhausted from my efforts. It took a lot of strength and presence of mind and heart to be the duck when faced with the stubborn, selfish bull. I could have fought back like a bull. I know how to behave like a bull (my family culture was one of selfishness after all), but that’s not who I am anymore, that is not how I chose to live my life. My “new” heart cannot sustain an ugly fight with the bull.
I’m still learning how to be the duck, to stand sure footed and strong, with grace, in the face of the stubborn, selfish bull. What I learned in the few moments of conflict and strife with my sister is that it’s challenging to be soft when encountering something hard, that it takes a lot of inner strength to remain grounded in our hearts. And yet we stay soft so we can remain open hearted and let our hearts fill with and pour out love. If we stay with the practice of being open in our hearts, of letting love fill our essence and our being, we can be the love that melts away the hardness, we can create a shift in the coolness and draw out the warmth.
My duck analogy might seem kind of random, but there is a story here which I’ll share. On one of our family hikes in Utah, I was standing on a large rock along an alpine lake shore. My nephew and brother-in-law were nearby. My nephew was “making friends” with the ducks. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a female Mallard extend one of her bright orange legs and webbed feet backwards, whilst standing and balancing on one leg. To my nephew and brother-in-law I said, “did you see that?” What they likely saw was a duck standing on one leg. What I saw was grace and elegance, steadiness and balance, equanimity. My nephew’s duck friend was teaching us something important, modeling for us the life affirming qualities we can embrace, if we so choose.
Like the duck who modeled for us an affirming way of being, I too carried out my intention for this trip of modeling for my sister and nephew and brother-in-law a life affirming way of being: flexible, grounded, patient, thoughtful, gracious, harmonious, peaceful, compassionate. I modeled the life affirming, heart expansive qualities that I cultivate in my yoga practice. I was the yoga. I am the yoga.