Beyond The Mat

Posted by in Yoga on the Road

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The first time I tried yoga, I cried. It wasn’t hard, I didn’t even break a sweat, but when I felt my hips open up in pigeon, tears came from my eyes. I felt this rush of emotion swirl up from somewhere deep inside me and I let out a few tears. I was so embarrassed. I had no idea what was happening, but I knew when I put my head up, that it better be over. When the class finished, I left angry.

This anger-after-yoga-class continued for a few years. My girlfriends who were blessed with skinny genes from birth would always be inviting me to studios, where they toted their expensive mat’s, dressed in chic yoga gear to do some downward dog. But I usually squirmed out of it; “yoga just makes me angry”, I’d say. But it was more than that. I didn’t belong. They were the same girls I never felt comfortable around in high school or university; all bouncy hair and long limbs, who loved to shop, knew how to decorate a condo and wear day-makeup.

I stuck with what I knew: boxing. Boxing gave me this amazing feeling in my mind. I would train whilst my trainer, Lee, yelled at me, pointed out my faults, pushed me to go beyond my limits. I trained through pain and fear and hurt. I got angry, I got upset; I got through it. And every time I left the gym, I’d feel this total zen feeling throughout my body. I felt like I had no mind. I breathed better, I felt looser, and I was calm.

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My trainer Lee was a Jujitsu master. A tall, proud Jamaican Rastafarian man. He believed in one love and in the principles of training. He taught me how to breathe and how to move my body with my breath. We would listen to roots reggae and grind it out. Lee taught me that no matter how much you give, there is always more. He taught me to trust in someone else with the most sacred of all things: my body. Lee taught me to focus, and he taught me to breathe. Then one day he told me I had to start going to yoga. “But yoga makes me angry”, I whined. “Oh yeah, how many times have you done it?” He replied evenly. I told him it was only a few times but each time I felt angry when I left. “Well, if you want to be a better boxer, you have to go to yoga. Your muscles are getting dense and short, and you need the stretch.” The compromise was that one a week was enough. And so begrudgingly, I went to yoga.

I found a karma class (that means cheap) at a studio in my neighbourhood, and started to go once a week. I couldn’t touch my toes in the first class, but I discovered that because of boxing, I was a lot stronger than most of the people in the class who could. Chatarunga was a cinch, and I had fantastic balance. I also knew how to move with my breath, and I found that I was naturally using ujjayi breathing before I even knew what that was. Yoga made me a better boxer almost immediately. I was looser, with less injuries and more awareness of my body. The yoga could stay.

I kept at it for about six more months and then I took a break from boxing and with it, went my weekly yoga class. I’d only ever seen it as a way to improve my game in the ring, and nothing else. I was so disconnected from what yoga meant; I had bought into the idea that it was a fitness regime as if it was an alternative to a cycle-fit class.

And then everything changed. I reached one of those cross roads that so many people reach in life when some major incident or series of incidents turns their life on its ear. I left my industry after over ten years, I just got out of a hopeless relationship and I had no idea who I was, or where I was going.

On one particular evening, when I was feeling totally desperate, I reached out to a friend from my past and I poured my heart out to her. I was so desperate I’d try anything. She told me to meditate. Six months earlier, I would have laughed. How was meditation going to make me feel better? But for some reason, it made sense to me. And she gave me some reading too: Tolle, Rumi, Ruiz—hippie stuff.

Meditation was easy when I didn’t know what it was. I would just sit or lie down and breathe and zone out into the nothing. I started to feel a growing space around me—I could do this meditation thing anywhere, on the subway, in a waiting room, in the middle of a chaotic night out with my friends who mostly just tried to get me drunk and hooked up with some new guy I didn’t even like. I tried guided meditations, I tried Kirtan, I went to restorative yoga, I sat with a weekly Buddhist meeting at the Quaker House around the corner, I had dinner with the Hare Krishna’s, but mostly I did it alone.

I kept reading and meditating every day. And I also started running. Running was part of my training when I was fighting; 5k a few times a week was all you needed, and even though I wasn’t boxing so much, somehow the running had stayed.  Before I knew it, I was running a lot. I loved the way my body felt pounding the pavement, I loved how I got that no-mind feeling afterwards, totally refreshed.

I signed up to run a half marathon on behalf of a local women’s shelter. It was a physical challenge but also a great opportunity to raise money for a local charity. The boxing fell away completely, and I worked my way up to 30-40k a week. And there was Lee, asking me if I was going to yoga. “But yoga makes me angry, it’s so boring” was my response now. But he told me I had to go for the stretch, especially since running was going to shorten my hamstrings. “Just do it on your day off” was his response. Reluctantly I started at the same studio, mixing in other intro-offers and karma classes from around town as well.

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Yoga made me a better runner almost instantly. With this new found space I’d created in daily meditation, my background in breath from boxing and the endurance with running, yoga was the last piece of the puzzle. But, I was still thinking of yoga and meditation as two completely separate things: yoga was stretching that skinny girls who wore day makeup did for exercise, meditation was something I did to stay sane. I wasn’t a hippie, I just did it because it worked.

I ended up running that half marathon twice in two years and beat my time by 10 minutes in the second year and my fund raising goal by $200 too. I stuck with the yoga and meditation pretty closely for the first one, but got lax in the second. I still went, but it was more like once a month. I just couldn’t get hooked on yoga.

It wasn’t until I had come back from a trip to Thailand and Indonesia that wasn’t all I’d expected that my real yoga journey began. Talking to the same friend who had recommended mediation two years before about my unhappiness at the Thailand tourist scene, which was mostly people in their mid-20s getting drunk during the day and eating fried foods at night, she recommended India. “What will I do in India?” I asked her. “Why don’t you become a yoga teacher?” I almost dropped the phone laughing at her. “But I hate hippies.” I responded playfully. “Well I sorry to break it to you, but you’re are one.” We both laughed at that.

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I was far from a yogi. Sure I did some meditation and the occasional hot yoga class, but I was no yogi. First off, I didn’t own one pair of yoga pants, which as far as I could tell, was a major component to yoga. I didn’t have a “yoga body” that my mom always pointed out on women her age who were mostly naturally thin. I didn’t have a mat and I swore and sweat a lot at the gym. The more I thought about how little I knew about yoga, the more I wanted to do the teacher training. After training to box in an amateur fight and running two half marathons, I was utterly bored and needed a new challenge. Yoga sounded just about right.

Without thinking of it, I booked my ticket, booked the course and set off to India. Looking back, I think I came upon it pretty honestly. Knowing what I know now (which is next to nothing about yoga still), I would be too intimidated by the course, the people, and the country to just fling myself at it. But then I thought, “how hard can it be? One of the poses is a nap.”

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I bought a Groupon (another way to get cheap yoga classes) to the yoga space, Octopus Garden, near my house and committed myself to taking daily classes there in all types of yoga before heading to India. I had about two months to “train” my body into yoga shape. I ended up going about three times a week at best and I learned that I was stiffer than I thought and that wasn’t going to change in two months of half-assed asana; I just had to go and hope for the best.

They say that India is a calling, but I was never called. But now that I have been to India, I feel called almost every day. Leaving India is inviting homesickness into your life thereafter. India is like your parents house once you leave for university; you miss it every day, but you know deep down that you can never live there permanently. It’s beautiful and challenging and frustrating and unlike anywhere else you’ll ever see in your life. It’s impossible to describe to anyone who hasn’t been and easily summed up with a knowing glance to anyone who has. The best way I can explain it is this: India is the only place in the world where a man in a car will pull up next to your scooter on the road and ask, “Taxi?”

Three flights, two layovers, and a bumpy taxi ride later, I arrived at Whispering Lakes where I checked into a tiny oven-shaped cottage for a month of downward dog.

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Was it harder than I thought? Of course it was. Everyone had told me that it would be harder than I could imagine, and I was prepared. I was prepared for the boredom of hours spent sitting on a cement floor for classes on things I couldn’t hope to memorize. I was prepared for aches and pains and hardships in daily asana practice. I was prepared for bug-infested nights sleeping in that little oven. But I wasn’t prepared for the emotional overhaul. It was hard being so soft. I cried every day. My heart opened and I cried. I cried because I’m a girl, and girls cry. I felt vulnerable and open and soft and I hated that. I was very resistant. I got sick and puked and crapped and tears streamed out of my eyes and I thanked God the whole time. And the more I opened the more I learned that in order to feel protected in the world, I should open even more. Somehow the more open I was, the easier life became.

A lot of people complained about the food, but the food was half the reason I agreed to the hair-brained yoga journey in the first place. Travelling through Asia does not mean delicious vegetarian food. If you’re a Westerner, you will end up eating at a lot of shitty combo places akin to Jack Astor’s or Montana’s, with spaghetti Bolognese and pizza on every menu. At yoga camp, we had green smoothies and fresh fruit for breakfast and avocados on rice and tofu salads and best of all, energy balls (a raw dessert made of nuts and dates and cacao powder and coconut shavings). A lot of people had a hard time with the food. I should be sympathetic, but as one of my fellow yoga campers pointed out one day when there was a room full of people lamenting the lack of milk, “come on people, it’s 2013 and you’re still trying to make milk happen?” Maybe those milk-eaters were okay with their emotions. We all have something I guess.

Also, yoga made me fat. It did. I had heard about yoga making you thin, but that’s not true. It lowers your metabolism and in all truth, you are not building muscle in yoga, just lengthening it. I went to India in peak physical performance and I came back seven pounds lighter but ten inches wider, which means I lost muscle and gained fat. I’m sure eating energy balls every day and driving a scooter didn’t help. And that was my very first lesson in ahimsa, that’s when the deeper yoga journey started.

India had been the beginning, the intro course; the sampler if you will. But the yogic lessons came in waves after that, and they haven’t stopped since. My first lesson was getting yoga-fat. It went against everything that I believed in. How could I be exercising every day (asana), meditating and eating mostly raw vegan and be so plump? When I came back to Canada, I started training back at the gym. I was still doing my practice, but I was also training on top of it. The fat didn’t budge. The scale stayed the same. It stayed there for five more months through all kinds of rigorous workouts, two countries and several different protein to carb ratios until finally one day I woke up under a mosquito net in Bali and thought, “I’m tired of feeling fat. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t feel fat at every size, I’m just gonna be happy with what I have.” I stopped working out so vigorously, and just enjoyed my body as much as possible, thanking the universe for it every day in my morning gratitude prayers and within a month, ten pounds melted off and I didn’t even care.

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Gaining weight was the first lesson, but it took the longest for me to learn. The next lesson was work related. That one came while I was still in India. Normally when I go away, I continue to work. The beauty of my job is that I can go anywhere with it, the downside is that I’m never really off work. I woke up at four in the morning every day at yoga camp to work for two hours before asana practice and went to bed at eight every night after. India was supposed to be a present I was giving myself before getting pregnant, getting my master’s and being a single mom. It was a last hurrah of sorts. Then one day I just couldn’t bring myself to turn on my computer. I just couldn’t do it. After ten years in promotion and marketing, a field I loved with all my mind, I couldn’t stand my computer. It all seemed like such a joke to me, the whole business of entertainment.

That was a lesson I didn’t take lightly. It didn’t seem like an opportunity for change, it seemed like India had reached in and messed up the lens through which I saw the world and I had no idea how to get it back. I spent three weeks feeling angry at this sudden change, resistant to it, trying to get it back. And then one day, when yoga camp was finished and I was on Christmas holiday, I woke up and realized that not caring about my old career left me free to do whatever I wanted with the rest of my life, now all I had to do was figure out what that was. I turned off my computer for two weeks and that was it. Ten years of building a company dedicated to promoting celebrity went out with a whimper.

The next lesson was becoming a mom. I had this baby itch that took me over like a thief lusting after family jewels in the best parts of uptown. It invaded my every thought and action for three whole years. All I could think of was becoming a mother. In the yoga world, there are no kids. Oh of course you know someone with a kid who’s travelling all over Asia with their baby tied to their back in the same way that we all know a smoker who lived into their old age, smoking two packs a day. But let’s face it there’s no babies in the nomadic, hippie-yogi lifestyle. I knew I wanted to be a mom and come hell or high water I was gonna be one before thirty five. On my own, or with someone, or by a doctor’s hand, or by a man’s body; I wasn’t even that picky about it. I was still hell bent on becoming a mom in the next year when I came back to Canada from India. And like a dog with a bone, I gripped this idea when I went to Bali two months later to “audition” that place for raising my fictional kids. And just as quickly as the baby brain hit me, it disappeared. One day I just didn’t care. I looked around and realized I really just liked…me. I liked my body, I liked not knowing where the path was taking me, I was happy with my family and friends and life was this beautiful space that I liked occupying. It didn’t matter much to me whether I occupied it with kids or not. My third lesson washed over me like a wave cleansing my body from head to toe-easy.

If all this upheaval scares you, don’t let it. I can imagine what I would have thought reading something like this two years ago: “so you got fat, cried every day and stopped caring about family or career? Yoga is NOT for me.” But it wasn’t all hardship and big ah-ha moments. There was some help from the divine along the way too.

Like one time when I saw God on the yoga mat. True story.

I was practicing on the indoor/outdoor deck in my home in Bali one morning, listening to the Shaolin Soul Mixes (a four-part soul music mixtape series that the Wu-tang’s Rza put together-do yourself a favor and download them immediately) and taking my time with my asana practice. There wasn’t anything particularly special about that day. I was using an old mat I found at the flat I was renting, and I was still wearing my pajamas and an old teeshirt with an oil stain on the chest, and no bra. It was not sexy time, just me-time.

Taking my time through sun salutations, I suddenly felt a complete one-ness with everything around me. My living room/kitchen/deck looked out over a lane pool and a garden that surrounded the flat. Beyond the garden was a rice field and the vague outline of the mountains in the distance. It was a stunning view on the worst day, but that day I felt the trees and the air and the flowers around me as if they were part of me. Suddenly I just got it; the cycle of life, how the universe interconnected, and where I fit in. Not that I couldn’t understand it before. I comprehended the concept of one-ness and life cycle, but conceptualizing something and intuitively feeling that you are part of it are completely different. There was a familiarity to it, and instinct to feel God; it was comfortable both within and without.

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For instance, I had no idea I was carrying a secret fear of death with me everywhere I went. Not until that morning when it was lifted. I wasn’t worried about theft, as in the death of my possessions, or even physical death. I saw how death was just another part of the cycle of life. That everything lives and dies and lives again. That death is the way that life is celebrated. I have no real words to describe what happened to me on the mat that morning, but it changed everything after that. Where all the other lessons were struggles at first that I had to let go of, this one was just a simple but profound shift brought to me like just desserts. The yoga had finally made me a better person.

After that, my practice continued as it had before: I woke up every day as tight as a drum, and grunted and creaked through a few sun salutations before my body opened to make way for some stillness of mind. I didn’t feel God like that again, not instinctually inside me, but only as a theory I had come to accept. But some things did change. I stopped wearing makeup almost ever, and I didn’t really crave processed foods (even the delicious sugar-infested stuff that beckons at every turn) anymore, and I felt safer in nature than in man-made structures. And somehow the simple things in life seemed more prominent and less like background. I became happier somehow, but also less so. Just more even. I also stopped wearing underwear and threw out all my bras with underwire or padding and from that day on, I’ve been kinda creeped out by plastic containers. In a nutshell, I became a hippie.

So where does that leave me now? I’m still a reluctant Western-hippie, preferring to remain punk rock in my veganism, activism and love of gangster-rap. Since I started teaching, I’ve opened up a whole new door to my heart where I can help air other people achieve moments of still ness in their lives and practice without scaring them away with too much armpit hair and incense…yet. I’ve found that baby steps are the best way to get closer to God for me. One hesitant step at a time.

**My story for the Yoga Teacher Training in Goa Scholarship Writing Competition**