Yesterday I took my second yoga class. I’ve done yoga stretches as part of warm-up exercises in acting and dance classes for years but I’ve never had a strong desire to take a class in it. Part of the reason for this is pure laziness. I’ve been relatively un-limber most of my life and it’s something that I have come to accept. I don’t do a lot of activities that require flexibility – or if they do I haven’t paid the price for my vise-like hamstrings. The other reason is that I was raised in a yoga-free environment, my only exposure being caricature images of middle aged women in tie-dyed tops and leg warmers or soft-spoken gentlemen on PBS in uncomfortably tight leotards. Not exactly the kind of things that make me want to jump in the deep end.
But a few years ago my dad had a triple bypass and I found myself instantly transformed from a relatively young guy in his early thirties who could stand to lose a few pounds to an overweight male approaching middle age with a history of heart disease in his family. A couple of weeks before my daughter was born I had some blood work done to check my cholesterol levels and they were a little bit high. Nothing major but a warning sign that without making some changes to my diet and exercising more I could be putting my family at risk. So when some signs showed up at work announcing a yoga class starting in the new year I decided to take advantage of the opportunity.
So there I was in class yesterday and the instructor starts talking about resistance. As we were contorting our bodies in a fashion that would have made an Inquisitor proud he continued to philosophize: Many people find that doing yoga brings up things, resistances, that they need to breathe into and let go. Something caught in my chest as I breathed in, imagining the air flowing to my recalcitrant leg muscles, grabbing the tension and flying away. My body isn’t the only thing that’s too tight. As the class continued I kept thinking back to quarrels with my wife that were caused because I didn’t want to take advice, I wanted to do something my way. I breathed into it and let it go. I thought about the ridiculous feeling of frustration when my daughter cries even though I’d prefer she was calm. I breathed into it and let it go. I thought about the friction at home when my personal would-like-to-do list gets overridden by the my-wife-and-daughter-need-me-to-do list. I breathed and let it fly away.
It wasn’t the episodes of conflict, frustration or anger that I was releasing, it was my need to justify myself in those moments. I wasn’t holding on to my anger I was holding on to my right to be angry. My leg muscles have no intrinsic desire to lengthen, soften or change in any way – that motivation and effort has to come from me. In the same way, my emotional muscles have no inherent impetus to make room for others. Muscles shrink and stay rigid for two reasons – lack of use and protection of an injured body part. Emotional inflexibility exists for the same reasons. By consciously embracing the practice of relinquishing my right to harbor negative feelings, by purposefully seeking to release when I find resistance, I am giving my heart the opportunity to expand, to soften and to experience love in places that have been dying for it like a cramped quad aching for some oxygen.
One of the Myer-Briggs personality trait pairings is Perceiving v. Judging. I’ve always thought of myself as a perceiving person, at least according to my test results. I think back to various times in my life where I’ve been happy to go with the flow. But feeling that resistance in me has forced me to rethink that conclusion. I think now that my concept of myself as being free-flowing was really a denial of my preference for putting off unpleasant decisions. If I could let circumstances eventually wipe out one of the choices then I would have The Universe to blame for the results. So my challenge to two-fold: to pursue and embrace flexibility both in body and mind and as my ability to move increases to use that openness to take more initiative in tackling things like taxes, chores, career and education.
When conflict becomes an opportunity for education and insight instead of a means for deepening one’s entrenchment then growth, flexibility and inner freedom become possible.