'Living' Yoga, Not Just 'Doing' Yoga

Yoga is not so much about getting your leg over your head as about controlling and observing what that head tells you to do throughout the day.
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It was 25 years ago this month when I took my first Hatha Yoga class. I hadn't known what yoga was back then, but when a woman almost literally floated by my exercise bicycle in a Manhattan gym, I couldn't resist asking someone who she was. "That's the yoga teacher," the woman explained. I got right off the bike and headed for this serene woman's class, convinced I wanted to learn whatever she was teaching.

I ended up loving yoga so much I eventually learned to teach it. As the years passed, though, life intervened -- a husband, kids, work. My teaching lapsed, and my own practice became sporadic.

Recently my schedule has shifted, allowing me the luxury of getting back into the flow of regular classes. I've been startled to see how flexible some of my fellow yogis are. I vaguely recall a time when I could touch my toes to the floor over my head in Halasana, or sit comfortably in full lotus for an end-of-class meditation, but not anymore. At first, I felt jealous of these gymnast-yogis. But, thankfully, I eventually remembered the core lesson from my yoga teacher's training: Yoga is not so much about getting your leg over your head as about controlling and observing what that head tells you to do throughout the day. It's a fabulous sensation to perform an asana well. But that joy pales with some of the yoga techniques I continually strive to incorporate in my off-the-mat practice -- a.k.a. my everyday life.

1) Bend. It is good to fold forward in Paschimottanasana, but bending was even more important the other day when my teenage son refused to do something I had asked. My instinct was to demand he listen to the woman who gave birth to him and raised him all these years (martyr card, anyone?). But how wonderful when I am flexible enough to realize he had a valid point-of-view. As with Hatha, bending doesn't mean losing all form, or forgetting I have my own spine; Sometimes, firmness is needed. But when I find myself taking a rigid stance, it may be out of habit or self-importance. Bending to others' desires makes space in my heart to see these people in more loving ways.

2) Stretch. I love the way Chandrasana, or crescent moon, opens up space on the sides of my torso. But my truest treasure: Stretching myself to try things I'm apprehensive of. After years of writing for magazines, I took the leap to write a novel. I also recently phoned an acquaintance I wanted to become deeper friends with. And I even ate octopus. It's exhilarating to reach beyond my comfort zone, even if the octopus did taste awful. (Fortunately, those other leaps have panned out well.) I like to remind myself that end-of-life regrets rarely come from what we've done, but rather what we never stretched ourselves to try.

3) Twist. My favorite pose early on and now, is Ardha Matsyendrasana, the half-spinal twist. One minute I'm facing forward; the next I've spun my head clear to the other side. Looking at things from a new angle serves me well in life, too. A few years ago I met a man in his 90s. Week in and week out, I'd see him at a spiritual book discussion group, but it never occurred to me to consider him a friend -- after all, friends are people close to our age. Eventually, another, even younger woman in the group befriended him, opening me to the prospect that I could, also. For years I took Bob to restaurants and parks, or simply called him to say hello. Our friendship and his wisdom added much to my life before he died earlier this year -- a blessing I would have missed had I not shifted my thinking.

4) Still. Ah, Savasana, the corpse pose. After a hatha session and a few minutes of tensing muscles around the body, there's bliss in relaxing -- and, unlike with sleep, being aware of that inner calm. Stillness also gets me through my hectic days, when both work and family seem always to want something from me -- now! Eckhart Tolle wonderfully said that one conscious breath is a meditation. Before lifting the phone receiver, I try to take that conscious breath and melt into the stillness. This inevitably makes the conversation flow better, and any decision I make in the call, smarter. Without that inner stillness, I know I would have screamed at the letter carrier who handed me a check for a substantial sum, so chewed up I knew no bank would cash it. After a calming breath, I acknowledged his own displeasure at the check's condition and, in that same place of inner peace, called the accounts payable department that issued it. I've no doubt they fell over themselves offering to overnight a replacement because I was loving and kind.

5) Touch. For the first time in years, I actually reached the floor the other day in Uttanasana, the standing forward bend. Yet what thrills me more is when I know I've touched and inspired people around me. I aim to do that through my writing and, equally important, through my conversations and encounters. Just yesterday a fellow writer called fretting over her problem with her editor, and I helped her see this was no reflection on her admirable writing skills. She hung up feeling better, and so did I.

Inspiring others to their own higher self, as I inspire myself to mine, is the greatest yoga practice of all. I'm glad I got off that exercise bike 25 years ago so I could learn this.

Meryl Davids Landau is the author of the new spiritual women's novel, Downward Dog, Upward Fog, where main character Lorna also learns to "practice yoga" in the real world. The novel was recently recommended as a great summer read by the Yoga Journal and Everything Yoga blogs. Read excerpts at www.DownwardDogUpwardFog.com.

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