When I first started training to be a yoga teacher a few months ago, pursuing difficult questions about existence, it made me nervous. Who am I? Why am I here? What causes my anxiety, my fear? What are the darkest parts of me?
I said to my husband, almost earnestly, “What if I figure everything out?” The fear and doubt—the things that always hold me back—was that by facing the truths of what it meant to be human, I’d be disappointed, or depressed, or God would decide that since I pursued all of those important questions, I didn’t need to be alive anymore.
But the purpose of yoga—the poses and meditation—is to experience who you really are, to be present in the moment, to surrender and understand what you’re afraid of in order to experience greater joy. It’s about training the mind, not getting involved in the endless loop, and instead listening to the wiser voice inside all of us. We know happiness is our natural state, but we make the assumption that it’s easy, or that it comes from external things. We don’t often appreciate how much internal work it takes to get there.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been the person who comes up with worst-case scenarios of all that can go wrong. I’ve made decisions based on what I “should” do, on some imaginary outside person’s list of Rules for How to Be Perfect in Life. And since my brain is so analytical, it has sometimes been hard to get out of my own way and go down the right path.
Yoga, I’ve learned, goes far beyond the poses I do on my mat. ”Be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation,” my yoga teacher says, usually when we’re in a backbend. And the simplicity of that phrase has stuck with me, especially in the last couple of weeks, as my family deals with huge transitions. Last week, I faced the ultimate pose—the uncertainty of our financial situation once my husband lost his job, and waiting for the results of an MRI of my brain.
The night before I got the results of the MRI, I couldn’t sleep. I had been relatively calm, in relatively good spirits, but became easily perturbed when my husband expressed his worry over something. Suddenly my body was one live jolt of nerves after another, and all night, I felt the fear gnawing in my gut. I had already been facing the changes in our life now that he’s home and trying to get his own business off the ground—the uncertainty and fear that I’ve been yogically waving away. But the MRI was a different thing. What if it came back that there was a problem, that I had a death sentence? How would my kids survive without me?
By five in the morning, after a night in and out of sleep, I went up to our attic and began doing poses. It was the only thing that would calm me: eye of the needle, cat pose, dog tilt, down dog, sun salutations. Within a few minutes, with Nina Simone playing on the record player, I started to feel better. I began to see, once again, that nothing in life is certain—no day, for any of us, is guaranteed. I was living in uncertainty, but I have always been living in uncertainty. It’s one of the central truths of life—change. Constant change.
I had already been applying yoga philosophy to my daily life, but that night (and two days before, when I shivered in the MRI machine), I realized how much deeper I have to go. I am nowhere near figuring it all out. In fact, that’s not possible. The important thing to do is to realize that life is not a mathematical formula with a solution. It’s more like a tree, its branches growing every which way.
When the doctor told me my brain scan was fine, that all I needed was some physical therapy to get my vestibular (balance) system back on track, I felt enormous gratitude. The whole experience had made me aware of my deepest fear—death, but also helped me gain some perspective, and grow in compassion for others whose test results might not be so positive. When I came home, I had so much energy, so much excitement, that I promptly cleaned the house. Everything—even the dust, the unopened mail—was beautiful.
I know that my job now is to take the tools I’ve learned from yoga in the past few months and face my challenges head on. The ultimate pose is not putting my feet behind my head, or balancing on my hands—it’s doing mental yoga throughout the day, as I face bills I may not be able to pay, or as I interact with my high-energy children, or breathe so as not to let a paralyzing anxiety take over.
Change is constant, uncertainty prevails. I’m in the thick of that right now, and I’m okay. In fact, I feel pretty damn free.