When I roll out my old yoga mat, a sensation of moving nostalgia sweeps through my whole body and I smile. The purple rubber is quite smooth and worn now, having seen well over two hundred practices, floats, falls, and has been rolled out and packed up over and over and over again. It smells of a mix between incense and salt and I fight with it for grip the entire time I practice on it…but I’ll never completely put this mat to rest.
I feel all of the chaotic struggle and sadness I went through when I push in to downward facing dog, I feel the support of an old friend when I pour my knees forward and release in to child’s pose. This mat has seen it all.
I had no idea what journey this piece of mixed material was going to take me on five years ago, but I’m sure glad I made the decision to let yoga give me a try. I was twenty-five when this practice effortlessly floated in to my life; I was losing a marriage, so lost and searching for something I could put positive energy towards – and that would put positive energy towards me. I have always felt full of light and called to share it, but during what would end up being one of the darkest times in my adult life, light was hard to locate no matter how deep I looked. Chaos was easier to find and for a while I very often chose that, making senseless decisions with my brain, hurting my body, and ultimately leading to the breaking of my own heart.
When I roll out my yoga mat now, I am reminded how yoga — above drinking, drugs, pizza, men, unhealthy friendships, good habits, bad habits, organized religion, ice cream, and all other avenues I tried – healed my life, breath, body, and spirit.
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Learning how to breathe properly in the practice of yoga has tremendously reshaped the way I think about breathing in daily life. In the posture, all we need do is inhale and intentionally ground down to stay for a moment longer; in life, it is the very same. I taught a vinyasa class recently and took note at how my students handled this queue: “Inhale, ground down.” Their strengthening inhalations and rooting exhalations sounded lively, so I made the same call again, but this time, instead of a grounding queue, I offered: “Stay.” Not a revolutionary addition to make, I’ve heard it a million times in class and said it while teaching regularly, but now I register the meaning of the word differently.
Stay present, stay focused, stay in line…we hear it all the time, but our minds are in constant movement and processing. When we’re giving our body an activity – think triangle pose, a tricky bind, or maybe just a walk – we can invite in breath to clear the thoughts away, and the same is true in life. As I held my students in Warrior II, I watched their abdominal muscles tighten, rest, and flex as I talked them through what it would be like to take a series of grounding breaths in life and learning to stay, to breathe through it; to know and understand that breath is a life force, that breath is power.
When yoga first found me, it was all I could do everyday to get on my mat in my tiny, lonely apartment –a place completely full of people and things– and sometimes all I could practice was child’s pose, my chest too heavy to life. On days that I could make my way up from the floor and could find stability in my new, wobbly practice, I would reach for things in Warriors I, II, and III. Power, strength, stability, reassurance, answers…I would pretend that all of those things were within my reach if I could just find a full breath. Within those long, filling breaths were moments of connection; I found ways to reach and make sense of things in my life that had no physical, tangible qualities, but felt now somehow completely within grasp because my breath seemed to make my arms longer.
The space that a simple breath can offer is the difference between a positive or negative experience; it can make the difference in your entire day and totally reshape the way you’re seeing something. It was understanding the breath that began to teach me to harness (and unleash) my practice and truly honor the chaos I was feeling within.
To further the connection, understanding, and appreciation of the breath, we have to look at movement and observation of the body, which inevitably finds union with the breath.
I am regularly baffled and fascinated with what the body is capable of. I have old, rickety knees that creak and crack when I walk sometimes. Physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons told me I would never fully rehabilitate because my quadriceps lacked strength and the ability to regain it. I took this to heart and to be the final answer and never truly picked up a ball or bat with any intention behind it. I limited myself at the gym (when I would go) because I had some words ringing in my ear, instead of just trying.
Yoga has given me the courage to try everything, even if I think what I’m doing is outside of my limitations.
A fun fact: I am five feet tall (on a good day) and was carrying around about forty pounds of sad, unrecognizable weight before the practice of yoga reshaped me, body and soul. I had finally conceded defeat to fast food, carbonated beverages, and some sweets, but wasn’t seeing the weight move and was bordering depression. As a person who has never struggled with self-approval, who has lived by the “I am what I am,” philosophy for most of my life, looking in the mirror in disapproval started to really grind up my day. I didn’t feel like me. I didn’t sound like me. My body didn’t feel like mine when I moved it. Southern women pride themselves on poise and grace and all I could offer at the time was aimless movement and a busy, cluttered mind.
Then someone said to me, either in a class or via YouTube, “Move with intention. Move with breath.” And a light went off. A chorus somewhere started singing and I heard and felt loud and clear what yoga was doing in my life. The physical practice had been changing my body as far as flexibility was concerned, and I liked what I knew so far about Ujjayi breath and the light yoga philosophy I was catching by skimming articles. But when you put all of that together, have that “ah ha!” moment and understand that the chaos is just chaos? That’s the gift. It’s awareness, it’s knowing, it is learning self-love.
One of the most remarkable observations I’ve made about yoga is that it takes the idea of how the breath, body, and spirit should work and unifies them in the most incredible way. I can’t help but get excited when I teach now because of all the hope I feel when I watch my students step on to the mat. Insane amounts of hope that the same sort of resurrection of the soul that incurred in my life once yoga found me will make its way to each and every person in savasana. Hope that there is truth in the practice, life in the breath, and honor in the chaos.
TJ Patel is a Louisiana blogger, published author, and yoga teacher that roots all her work in the sense of community.
When she’s not in the writing chair (or at the yoga studio) you can find her strolling the streets of New Orleans, coffee in one hand, dog leash in the other.