About two years ago, I began practicing yoga. I've done several types, but the one I enjoy the most is Bikram yoga - aka HOT yoga. In a yoga studio that is heated to 105 degrees, a group of people stare at their reflections in the mirrors along one wall and connect with their innermost thoughts. We stretch, twist, bend, and SWEAT (a lot!), all while maintaining eye contact with our ourselves. There is no peeking around to see how well someone else is holding their pose. No talking or even groaning is tolerated. Silence. That's what's required, as the only voice that fills the room is that of the instructor as she explains the proper way to execute each pose so that we don't do damage to our spines or our knees. The yoga instructor insists that we remain in the room no matter what. If you're exhausted, or feel faint, you are permitted to sit or to lie down, but you may not leave. You are forced to remain in the room for an hour and a half and come face to face with the one person many of us run from the most - ourselves.
I remember my first class. I thought the lady instructing the class as well as the people who attended were insane. It felt so HOT, so difficult to balance in one pose for a full minute. I couldn't understand how we were expected to remain still - to not even wipe the sweat that poured forth from us and onto the towels we stretched across our mats. She explained that the sweat was our body's way of cooling itself, that wiping it was futile since it would only come back within seconds. She also explained that most of our struggle in the room was mental - that our bodies were perfectly capable of doing what she asked of us. But our minds were another story. If we convinced ourselves that we were going to faint, then we would. If we told ourselves that it was too much, it would be. She also told us that our mental ability to withstand the pressures of the class would affect those around us. If the two people on either side of me decided to quit and lie down, it would make it that much harder for me not to do the same. "We hold each other up in here," she said. "We take water breaks together, we breathe together. So try as hard as you can to remain in your practice." I suffered through that first class, practically crawled back to the locker room and slowly, weakly peeled out of my "Richard Simmons shorts" and my sports bra, cleaned myself up and put on my street clothes for the journey home.
As I walked to the train station, the cold air felt so good on my face! Now that I had escaped the heat of the yoga studio, I was elated to be outside, even in the frigid January cold that blanketed New York City. But as I neared the train station, the strangest truth occurred to me. I felt GREAT! How could that be possible? I had just been tortured for ninety minutes. I had forced my body into positions that seemed inhumane. And yet, mentally, physically and even spiritually I felt better than I had in years! I went home, took a long hot shower and slept better than ever - no tossing and turning, no interruptions. I literally laid down, passed out, and the next thing I knew, it was morning. I sprung up out of bed with no aches or pains like the ones I suffered after every "boot camp" style weight loss class I endured. No, this was much better. I felt mentally and physically strong.
After a day or two, I decided to try it again. I grabbed my yoga mat, my towel and some water and headed back to class. This time I tied my weave up in a scarf "sistah-girl" style and I was ready for battle. I stepped into the class and made eye contact with myself in the mirror. Before the instructor entered the room, I allowed my gaze to drift around the room. I saw men and women of varying ages, races, shapes and sizes. There was no judgment as each of us stood in various stages of undress. One thing was certain - it was HOT in that room. So it was no surprise that all of us wore as little as possible. People let their rolls hang out, and nobody cared. The instructor that evening began the class by reminding us that we were to keep our eyes focused on our own face in the mirror. We were to be aware of what we were thinking, to encourage ourselves mentally. She reminded us that this was not a competition. We only needed to focus on our own practice, to be honest with ourselves, and we must remain in the room no matter what. I was ready. I mentally "hummed" the words to my favorite gospel song and reminded myself that I could do anything I set my mind to.
And we began. Sweat poured forth, and I didn't bother to wipe it away. I let it drip from my forehead, my nose, my ears, back, thighs, and everywhere in between. I told myself that I was sweating out all of the bad energy that I had absorbed that day and I pressed on. During the deep breathing exercises, the instructor told us to inhale the goodness we wanted for ourselves, to exhale the bullshit. I did, my gaze fixed on my own reflection, mentally telling myself that I was awesome, that I was DOING IT, that I would feel fantastic when it was all over. In between each pose, as our heart rates sped up and our breath became more labored, the instructor would repeat a phrase that I absolutely LOVED. "Leave yourselves alone," she said. "Don't fidget, don't fix your clothes, just LEAVE YOURSELF ALONE." Call me crazy, but that was some brilliant advice. I spend so much of my day fixing my hair, retouching my lipstick, making sure that I don't have food between my teeth, even pulling my drawers out of my butt (TMI, I know, but it's the truth). So the thought of leaving myself alone was the best advice I had gotten in a long time.
After class, as we all allowed our bodies to cool down, I lay on my yoga mat and meditated. I forced out all the thoughts that usually persist in my mind ("What will I make for dinner?" "I wonder if Justin finished his homework." "What do I have to address when I get back to work tomorrow?") and I focused only on Jesus. I thought about the blessings I had - from the big ones to the smallest. My children, the roof over my head, the money in the bank, the food in my pantry, the career I have, the mobility of my limbs, the family I have, my sense of humor, my beautiful pedicure, my unshakable faith. I got up from the mat, went to the locker room and this time I didn't feel as weak. Instead, I felt renewed.
In the years since then, I haven't always been consistent in my yoga class. I used to go three times a week. Lately, I'm lucky if I make it three times a month. But I have made silent meditation a part of my everyday routine. Every morning, I rise before the sun comes up. I go into my home office/prayer closet and I sit alone in the dark in my father's old recliner. I close my eyes, I breathe deeply and I leave myself alone. I meditate on the blessings that I have. I make plans for how I can bless others on this day. I remind myself that I am wonderfully made. And then I pray. My conversations with God each morning have made all the difference in my spiritual, emotional, and mental well being. I am rooted and grounded in my faith and I have found happiness unlike anything I ever imagined possible. In fact, my conversations with God have become my favorite part of the day. I lay all my concerns, my problems, my triumphs and my joy before Him. And he speaks to me, in turn. It is incredible. Meditating has taken me to another level. I have mastered the art of drowning out all of the noise around me - which is no small feat in a city full of sirens, horns honking and loud, obnoxious people - and I've learned to focus on my own thoughts. I can silence the incessant chatter and mayhem around me and be alone with myself even in the most crowded of venues.
I urge you to find your center and add meditation and prayer to your life. You'll be surprised what you can hear when you silence all the madness around you.
Namaste ("I bow to you.")