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Finding Balance off the Mat

Finally, my friend Moira decided to give yoga a try.

“There’s a sense of lack to my life,” she said, as we were driving to the studio to take a class together. “Initially I thought that retiring from gymnastics was the reason... But I made a honest self inquiry and I realized that competing was my hideaway: I had been hiding from myself. Don’t get me wrong: I love gymnastics. I’m still passionate about it and this is why taking refuge in competition came so natural. Competing, placing and winning gave me the highs, and created moments of happiness which I couldn’t get otherwise. In retrospect, I can say that outside my moments of glory I wasn’t particularly happy; and despite my moments of glory I’d never had a sense of…accomplishment…don’t know if it does makes any sense…”

I sighed. It made a lot of sense. I had been there myself. I too, had tried to hide behind performance and results.

“Look,” she said almost in tears, “I can still do a handstand on the bar, I can still flip back and nail a landing on the balance beam, yet my life lacks balance in more then one way. How could practicing yoga help me? How is this supposed to enhance the quality of my life”

I pondered silently over the the disbelief in her voice. Few minutes later we were sitting down cross legged on our own yoga mats.

“It really feels good,” she said on the way home. “It’s challenging but in a very different way than what I’m used to. I want to come again, although I’m not sure I understand how this stuff actually works. Does it mean that mastering few postures, and regulating breath create balance into someone’s life, just like that?” Moira snapped the fingers to make her point.

The discussion we had that night turned out to be clarifying for myself as well, not just for Moira.

Ancient texts underline the practice of yoga as means to live a better life. That was its purpose, as opposed to just getting better at “doing poses” poses or perform some amazing physical feats. For the first time, the relationship between daily life and the practice of yoga appeared to me in a different light.

We come to the mat aware that we are about to undertake a practice that is all life affirming and life supporting. We practice for the fun and joy of it, but we also practice for the higher benefits in sight. We want to live better, and expect our yoga practice to support our pursuit.

But what is the mechanism that allows the practice to carry over into the day, so one can truly live yoga instead of just doing it? What does it take to make someone say out loud “Life is good!”, and mean it? And what does yoga have to do with such affirmation, if anything at all?

Life is good when we experience balance: a state where we feel that our physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual demands are met to a larger rather then a lesser extent. Balance…this is what we are searching for, aren’t we? Figuratively speaking, none of us likes the feeling of the rug being yanked from underneath our feet, the feeling of being thrown off balance and down to the floor. We most likely reach the conclusion that we need to achieve balance to be able to stand more firmly on our feet, so storms won’t uproot and throw us to the ground as it happens with shallow rooted trees.

As yoga practitioners, we come to mat to practice balance with the expectation that the balance we practice there will carry over into our daily life. But how does this really work? Most of us only know that it does work. We might have experienced improvements in different areas as we gradually have become more established in a regular yoga practice: it is too obvious to be labeled as a coincidence. Yet, we still do question.

Is it really enough to do Tree Pose for few minutes a day to bring balance in one’s life? Does it mean that being able to perfectly balance on one foot equates or translates into balancing all the aspects of one’s life? If it only were that simple! As a matter of fact, as I was explaining it to my friend Moira, few days ago, this is not exactly the case. I’ve known gymnasts, dancers and acrobats who can balance in the most extreme and contorted positions. Yet, many among them complained about one major thing they felt they were lacking: a balanced life. Being able to physically balance in a pose does not equate with a balanced life. Mastering the physical ability of balancing in Tree Pose alone will not turn your life around overnight.

But it can be the starting point.

We step into our yoga practice with the mind’s slate clean, after having left, hopefully, the to do list at the door. As we flow through asana sequences and pranayama we remain present and do our best to screen out all thoughts extraneous to the practice. We aim to finely tune into the body so we can really feel each pose or breathing technique and notice its effect on us. Initially, we look for the immediate effect, the one that we experience as we practice on the mat. At the end of the practice we look for the overall effect and later in the day or later in the week we look for the long-term effects of what we practiced.

Each pose can be seen as a metaphor of a real life aspect. Speaking of balance, Tree Pose is one expression of it. The weight is on one foot that needs to be a solid foundation for us to hold the pose. The toes are spread on the firm surface, energized yet not gripping, making us think of invisible roots anchoring us into the earth. We think of the energy we draw from the ground through our root system and with each breath we feel that energy moving upward, nourishing the tree we have chosen to embody. The sole of one foot is pressing into the supporting leg while the supporting leg is pressing back with equal force adding stability to the pose. The chest is open, the crown of the head reaches to the sky and the arms stretch up like branches calling in for sunlight, and fresh air.

We feel tall and strong, majestic, connected to the ground, yet reaching skywards. We are no longer practicing the tree pose; we have become that tree. We let the energy of the pose soak into the body. And whatever we hold in our conscious mind for long enough, whatever we have absorbed through our senses for long enough penetrates our subconscious mind and starts shaping our reality. We have become the tree not because we simply spend few minutes standing on one foot, but mostly because in addition to that, we focused on the qualities and the characteristics of the tree: on the qualities of balance, strengths, beauty, harmony that we would like to manifest in our lives. With repetition, we internalize those qualities and more and more often we find ourselves standing firmly on our feet amidst life’s storms and turmoil.

But balance doesn’t stem from one pose alone. The idea of balance pervades the entire practice, which becomes a metaphor for life itself. Some poses are held for long enough to make our muscle quiver and help us build endurance, but we also move by breath through dynamic flow sequences, stepping back and forth or hopping for transitions. Some parts of the class aim more at strengthening and powering up, but they have their counterparts that emphasize deep stretching, softening and letting go. Verbal guidance alternates with silence. The awareness encompasses everything: the body while being in the pose, the way we feel inside as we do the pose, the thoughts and emotions floating on the mind’s sky, the flow of breath, which at times becomes a focal point itself.

We reach the end of the practice feeling greatly energized and deeply restored; in other words, balanced. We leave fully equipped and ready to take in the day, facing a new yet very old challenge: remaining in balance while off mat.

Out there into the world the roles have changed: the everyday life becomes the metaphor of one’s yoga practice. How do you maintain the connection, keep the channel open for the balance you’ve experienced on the mat to carry over? What do you do when the communication line breaks and there’s a feeling of disconnect sneaking in, as if the yogi within yourself who showed up few hours (or minutes ago) and the person who lost it all (still you, or I, for that matter) are strangers? How do you come back, or how do you manage not to let this happen? We would love to hear from you all sharing your thoughts, ideas, and experiences on “Finding Balance off the mat”.

What is your way to make it happen?

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