07 Jan 2016

How I Practice: A Meditation on 12 Years on the Mat

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When I first started practicing years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I had a vague sense that

One of my earliest yoga photos

One of my earliest yoga photos

poses should be in some type of order, but that order was a mystery to me. So I spent my time on the mat playfully stabbing at poses, holding them for 5 or 15 or 25 breaths. Warrior 2 on both sides, a wobbly Eagle for a minute, Tree Pose, a random Sun Salutation, some forward folds because I liked to stretch. It was unstructured and intuitive, as if I was introducing myself to the poses as much I was the poses to my body. “Hi, I’m Melissa. Can we be friends?” It was a wonderfully curious and investigative time in my life.

Later, I learned a bit more about sequencing and found some flow classes. I learned that poses can be linked together. I experimented with flow–Warrior 1 to Warrior 2 to Triangle. Sometimes I’d create a single, simple flow and do it over and over until I was tired. There was still very little method to my practice, but it didn’t matter. My time on the mat was sacred and private. It freed me up to explore.

Years later, I’m grateful for those early, unstructured practices. Many yogis struggle for years to develop a home practice; I had one from the very beginning. I’ve never been attached to a teacher or a class. I’ve always been confident in my ability to do yoga on my own.

My practice has changed a great deal over the years. It has more structure now. I understand how to warm up, when to strengthen, when to stretch, how to capitalize on building heat, and when to cool down and rest. Where I used to dabble and experiment, my practice today is exclusively Core Strength Vinyasa now. Bent joints, wave-like movement, and a focus on Deep Core anatomy all feel like home to me on the mat. After over 12 and half years of regular practice, I find that it’s still constantly evolving, and I evolve within it.

12494966_10153534482913138_9216531201198924432_nMy body bends easily. My muscles and fascia are naturally loose, and years of dance training in my youth trained them to stay pliable. I fall easily into splits and hip openers; my leg lifts effortlessly in Bird of Paradise. Flexibility has never been an issue. Strength is my struggle. Unlike some yogis, my muscles don’t knot up easily into little balls of potential energy; they remain soft and mobile. Poses that require strength escape me. So I practice them. Over and over, I take on my own body weight and seek steadier balance, a longer hold. My body may never knot up with lean muscles, but I’ve learned to embrace the process of re-defining what strength means for me.

While I  still work to get stronger, I no longer chase accomplishments on my mat. I see yogis on Instagram making bigger and more impressive asana shapes every day. There was a time when I would have jumped on that train and strained my body to keep up with social media yoga stars. As much fun as asana “challenges” and creating new shapes is, that kind of intensity no longer serves me. Life is intense enough. I need my practice to ground me, not shake me up.

Almost 13 years in, I recognize that my practice must support my life. It has to keep me strong enough to do what I need to do and feel good and flexible and healthy. But it can’t dominate my life, nor can it leave me too exhausted and sore to do other things I love. Some yogis rise before dawn to practice for two hours or more. I’m not that kind of yogi, and I’m fine with that. My practice is a mid-day pause to re-center, a time when my mind is tired of work and my body craves movement.

And of course, at the center of every practice is compassion. It took a lot of years to learn to love 10264906_10153531001718138_176717278009175175_nthis body of mine; many of those years I beat up on it pretty hard. But now I have and continue to practice compassion for this miracle of a body I get to walk around in. I love my loose and flexible muscles that may never feel totally comfortable in a handstand. I love my soft belly that houses incredibly strong core muscles. I love my arms that will never look toned, no matter how much muscle I build, but can hold a Crow pose for hours. I love my sweat and breath and the thousands of hours I’ve put in on my mat to bring me to this point in life. And I love knowing that my practice will be there for me, day after day, no matter what life throws my way next.

All these years and hours and breaths later, I sometimes still feel like that college girl who was just discovering yoga. Playfully stabbing at poses, curious about what it all means, and open to the deep mysteries to be uncovered–one breath at a time.

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