Can you spare me some change?

The only place in life where making change is easy is in a bank. For the rest of it, change is at best mildly uncomfortable and at worst like pulling teeth. Our individual constitution, personality, life experiences, strength of character and behavioral patterns will determine just how uncomfortable changing is.

For me, change was always exceptionally hard. I had to convince myself repeatedly that it was worth the effort, that the end result would be far shinier and prettier in order to justify the feelings of rage and discontent that would surface in me almost instantly. In addition, being an American conditioned to strive for perfection AND instant gratification, I found many reasons to want to change but gave up very quickly which did two things:

1) Established in me an inner critic so oppressive even a fascist regime seemed like a support group.

2) That I had a weak character and that I was destined to stay exactly where I was both physically and emotionally which made addictive behavior like eating, smoking and sex a perfect escape from the reality of my weakness.

Lucky for me (and anyone who knows me) yoga found me in my mid twenties and started to prove to me that I COULD change, that I wasn’t weak (in fact quite the opposite) and that adapting to change was going to be the most critical and beneficial life skill I could acquire for dealing with the roller coaster of circumstances that would be handed to me in the coming years.

In the beginning of a yoga practice, a person is faced with many uncomfortable realities about themselves. You are shown your weaknesses, stiffness and imbalances with brutal honesty. A person’s reaction to these truths varies. For myself, my inner critic loved to pipe up. An example of my early inner dialog:

“Wow, Gina. You are REALLY out of shape. Look how that girl over there can touch the floor without bending her knees. You are SO stiff, I guess you should have been working out for all of these years instead of sitting on your butt eating. AND did you see her in those leggings? Wouldn’t that be nice…not having a muffin top in your size 12 sweatpants. She was probably born that way, lucky girl. Look how she can hold that warrior pose without even shaking and I don’t see a drop of sweat on her. I’m hungry…after class I am TOTALLY treating myself to a bacon cheeseburger. I’ll get a salad tomorrow…”

Sound familiar? My teacher must have been able to read minds because within 3 days of seeing me return to practice she offered encouraging little tidbits in class like,”Be patient and kind to yourself during practice, always remembering to practice non-violence especially in your thoughts.” and “Remember there is no competition in yoga, especially with yourself.”

How did she know? It was all over my face. I would hold my breath, clench my jaw and silently berate myself again and again.

After a solid hour of self-flagellation, I would leave before the deep relaxation. She finally called me out on it one day.

“Gina, why do you leave before the best part of class? It’s really important to give yourself some time to rest at the end and absorb all that you’ve done.” She offered this gently with a smile. I felt like she had shone a flood light on me in a prison yard escape attempt.

“All I do is lie there thinking of what I have to do with the rest of the day, what’s waiting on my desk, what I’m going to get for lunch. I can get a jump on it, fit more in with the time.” I replied almost honestly, not sharing the other fact that it irritated me to see the others so peaceful, clearly better than me.

“Just give it some time, it’s only five minutes. When your mind is racing, watch the thoughts pass by, redirect your attention to watching your breath. It may seem weird, but it takes some practice to learn how to relax. Be patient and just see what comes up. You might be surprised.” she offered this with a knowing glimmer in her eye.

The next practice I stayed for deep relaxation convinced it would be terrible but determined to try to follow her suggestion. What’s the worst that could happen? It is only 5 minutes…

“OK, here we go. I’m going to relax, dammit. Watch your inhale and exhale, OK, seems easy enough. Inhale…exhale….inhale…exhale…what’s for lunch? Maybe pizza….Oh, there’s a thought. I knew I couldn’t do this. Stay focused, Gina, try again. Inhale….exhale…..relax your legs….inhale….exhale….relax your belly….inhale…..exhale…..relax your jaw….inhale….exhale…inhale……..exhale……….”

Before I knew it, my teacher was Om-ing us out and I was so relaxed I had fallen asleep. I was so refreshed I felt as if I had slept for 3 hours. Something had shifted in me, something had changed, and this time it was for the better. When I learned to just relax but stayed focused without being overly critical about whether I was doing it right I found within me a quiet space of deep peace, that place where the outside world ceased to exist. My thinking mind slowed down and I found deep rest. A thin piece of a vinyl mat on a hardwood floor never felt so comfortable.

Sometimes change is painful but a lot of the time it brings a much needed change in perspective and creates the conditions necessary for positive growth. I made many more changes since that first deep relaxation and came face to face with many more of my self-limiting doubts and negative thinking patterns. I got stronger and more balanced, lost weight and made better choices for myself more easily and readily without fighting them so much. I had good days and bad, days where my practice felt effortless and satisfying and days where I struggled and had to back out many times. I kept my peaceful disposition, smiled and laughed when I fell and tried again, and stayed for deep relaxation for every class.

10 years later I’ve learned a lot about myself and continue to work on my weaknesses while not judging myself or others for theirs. Practicing yoga is just that, a constant practice. If you can learn to stay present without judging, quietly cultivating a witness¬† inside of yourself and remain vigilant but not violent, you can come back home the peace that is your true nature. You may also learn to welcome change with open arms rather than steal yourself against it. I still get the twitch inside of myself to reflexively revolt against change but after years of practice I’ve learned how to quiet down the critic and embrace the change for the lesson I’m about to learn.

 

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