Yoga for Happiness

_MG_5533 I was the kind of kid who wouldn’t do something if it didn’t come easily. It was with this attitude that I first encountered yoga. I was in the dance program at my high school and was more than a bit conceited about my physical abilities. Dance was something I was always better at than most. I loved going to new classes because I could flaunt my strength and flexibility.

When I first practiced yoga, it was my ego that entered the room. I would make snap judgments about the people around me: awkward and skinny; weird glasses; too chubby to be a threat. Once the class had started, I would detest anyone who was “better” than I, and would push myself beyond my abilities to get into the postures. This, unsurprisingly, led to various injuries. After a few wrist and knee strains, I compressed my spine in headstand. Following a three-day fever and months of chiropractic treatment, I started to back down.

Not long after this, I decided I wanted to teach. Though my ego was still driving my practice, I knew that yoga was helping me to centre myself and find balance in my otherwise chaotic life.

At the time, if you were serious about yoga in Montreal, you would likely train with Mark Darby at Sattva Yoga Shala or Hart Lazer at United Yoga Montreal. Both have been practicing for decades, are incredible practitioners and teachers, and have loyal followings.

My first class with Darby was heaven. After a lifetime of dance, having an instructor correct my postures was like giving drugs to an addict. In addition to wanting everyone in the class to see how awesome and flexible I was, I desperately wanted recognition from the teacher. I wanted to improve until I was the best. I wanted everyone to watch me in awe, the way I watched the most advanced yogis at the studio.

I signed up for the yearlong teacher training and began a journey that would ultimately change my life. I started going to the early morning self-led Mysore practices, and was constantly humbled by the abilities of others. Some mornings I would burst into tears on my mat. Other days I would leave in a euphoric buzz. After a childhood of striving to be perfect, of comparing myself to others and feeling like a failure if I wasn’t the best, yoga helped me to see that it’s okay to be imperfect.

There is no such thing as physical perfection. Even those people who are seemingly perfect are still fighting their own demons. After a year at Sattva, training with Darby, I realized that he’s just like everyone else. A man who loves pizza and was giddy like a kid when he got a 50” TV: he just happens to be strong and disciplined, and have an awe-inspiring Ashtanga practice.

Mid-way through my teacher training I found out that I was pregnant. I couldn’t even find the energy to get out of bed. Postures that had been easy were suddenly impossible. I would have to sit down midway through the standing sequence with dizzy spells. I wanted to run away. I would lie in bed hating myself for not getting up, but dreading my practice. After a month of complete avoidance I got back to the studio. I learned to work with my body, not against it. I overcame my exhaustion and learned modifications for the postures I could no longer do. Into my second trimester, my practice actually strengthened. I found joy in discovering my new body and finding ways to adapt to the changes inside me.

After childbirth, it all fell apart again. I was at the beck and call of a tiny human being and as a result, I hardly found time for my practice. When I did make it to the studio, I would get frustrated watching the other people around me, who in my eyes were constantly improving, while I had taken a huge step backwards.

But I persevered. During my yearlong training I learned the true purpose of yoga. It’s not to look great or to be better or stronger than anyone else. It’s to find balance within your own body and mind, to nurture your flexibility and strength so that you can meditate for long periods, and in doing so, find your centre.

Five years on, I still struggle to remain equanimous. From great frustration on days when I can’t quite get into my practice, to elation when I suddenly get a posture I’ve been working on for months, I now recognize the passions and aversions that accompany the practice, and everything else in life.

Yoga isn’t about being the strongest or fittest or sexiest girl in the world. It’s not about toning your abs so that you have a “beach body” or tattooing yourself with Sanskrit letters and wearing Thai fisherman pants (unless, of course, that’s your thing). Yoga is about finding yourself and accepting who you are every single day, no matter how imperfect that is.

Now, when I sit on my mat, I am able to wade through the mire of anxiety and passions and find quiet and peace. When I begin my practice I can (usually) breathe through the stiffness of my joints and find solitude within myself. Instead of thinking about what I need to do tomorrow, next week or next year, I think of what my muscles are doing, where my psoas is and whether or not I’m spreading my toes.

There is always room to grow and improve in yoga. Looking at a photograph of myself in headstand, I see that my shoulders look sunken, my spine isn’t quite vertical. While I have been working these very same postures for going-on ten years, I still learn new things every time I practice.

It took me a long time to get to this point, but now, when I go to a Power Yoga class at a gym, or Vinyasa Flow at a fancy studio, I make sure to close my eyes. I don’t want to see myself in the mirror and compare myself to others in the class. I don’t want my ego to step up and take control. Yoga is about finding love for yourself and all those around you. It’s about finding balance and equanimity. It’s about being the best person you can be, without any judgment. Whether you’re spiritual or not, yoga is a journey. If you want to reach the final destination, you’ll have to check your ego when you depart.

Photograph by Chloe Ellingson as part of Someone Else.

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