Ahh … Yoga is so refreshing. I wish I could explain how it makes me feel in a way that accurately depicts just how [insert positive adjective] it is. But all I seem to have at hand are stories and memories. So, here’s a memory that makes me feel the way that yoga feels.
Stressed out, near tears, and very much frustrated with a situation that seemed beyond my control, I reached out to someone close to me. He listened, or at least, I think he listened (he gave me the appropriate acknowledgements to assure me he was). And yet, there was nothing he could or would tell me specifically about what my problem was. Instead, he gave me a piece of advice that made me feel… Confused at first, but after meditating on it, centered.
“Live in the now,” he said. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. Take things as they come.”
… Fuck, I thought. Is that my problem?
I do get ahead of myself. I do get excited for things. I also get worried about things. The amount of times I’ve felt let down by reality is stifling. And sure, sometimes things have actually worked out better than I hoped, but realistically, the percentage of “awesome things happening” versus “actual things happening” lean heavily in the latter’s favor.
I hate that.
… But I know I shouldn’t.
Hating the future means we are so blinded by what might be or may be that we forget to see what is.
So, I asked myself, “Where am I now? What is happening to me in the present? How do I feel about my reality?”
And I answered, “I’m alive. I’m healthy. I ate way too much at San Francisco Oysterfest yesterday, but that was yesterday. Not now. Right now, I am refreshed from an early yoga class, a shower, and a nap. I’m breathing. I feel clean. The sunshine is warm. I am okay. Everything is okay.”
Then, I felt thirsty.
So I reached for my glass, drank my fill, and I relaxed.
The water tasted good.
Stress is powerful and overwhelming.
It can come from anything.
It is painful, and scary, and because of that, we often work furiously to eliminate it.
But what we seem to forget, and what my friend reminded me through those simple words, is that by focusing so intensely on the stress we are feeling, we bring more focus and attention to that stress, and the cycle only continues because of it.
Doesn’t that seem like a waste of energy? And how relieving does it feel to know that alleviating stress can be as easy as intentionally focusing on something else? Changing our perspective — not to something not necessarily positive or uplifting, but real! And if that still sounds hard, well … Let me explain it through yoga.
In yoga, the rule is this: breathe.
Everything you do flows around your breath.
“One breath, one movement.”
When you find yourself in a challenging pose, with your body twisted or bent in such a way that you feel your muscles quivering, your legs about to give out, or your arms apt to collapse beneath you, you train your focus instead on your breathing. It might come ragged, but you focus on it anyway.
Bring intention into your breath.
Follow the air in.
Give yourself permission to breathe loudly.
To sigh with relieving purpose.
Beads of sweat leave salty trails down the surface of your skin, and still, you breathe. And your body feels all the better because of it.
Breathe, and forget, for just a moment, the challenging thing you are striving to overcome. Release that intensity and focus on your breath. It will get you through it. And if you fall, or if you fail, it’s okay — because you’re breathing. So climb again, working your way intentionally back to where you were through the guidance of your breath.
Yoga teaches you to let go. You release the tension from your face and loosen the muscles that don’t need to do any work, conserving your energy only for the things that matter in whatever pose you take, all while stretching and kneading and returning your tightly-wound body back into this limber, flexible state, feeling yourself grow stronger every day, more relaxed every moment, able to do things you couldn’t before, thriving on that growth. And you focus your intention only on the things that deserve your attention at that very moment.
And you breathe.
You always breathe.
Yoga and the Present.
* Doesn’t that sound like it would make a really great stress-relief book title? Like some kind of self-help book to meditation and healthy living? If someone steals that from me, you’re welcome.
My secret to stress relief is as simple as that.
But it can be different for anyone.
It can be as simple as giving myself permission to give myself a shoulder massage, reaching back to squeeze my tired muscles. My stress relief has sometimes been as simple as boiling a pot of water to brew a peppermint tea. I’ve even found relief in enjoying a walk down the street to drink fresh young coconut water straight from the fruit, scooping out and chewing on its fleshy white meat, loving the sunshine.
And it can be as simple as breathing. As simple as living in the now. The present.
So, okay. I get it.
I stress out easily.
But I’ve been working on it.
Age and experience have taught me that life is stressful. It is a daily practice to center myself, and to remind myself not to get caught up in the little things. It has taught me not to waste my focus and energy on things that simply do not matter to my reality, my now. It has taught me to accept when I fail, and to learn from my failures knowing that I always have the present to try again. To become stronger.
Failure only teaches you what not to do. You still have to learn what you should do, and the future is, in reality, intangible. You’ll never know the future as your present if you don’t keep trying. And all we have is today.
When I think about that, all of that, I stop caring about the nonsense. The external struggle. The stress. I remind myself to look within, and I remember how happy I am there. And I think that sense of feeling present, owning who you are at that moment, reminding yourself of your strength through something as simple as your intentional breath during one of the most difficult things your body has ever done — I think all of those things work together and give me a sense of … Well …
I admit it. I can be a total control freak sometimes. A lot of my own sense of personal stress comes from feeling out of control. My life is planned around that feeling. I don’t mean that I spend my free time cracking whips or telling people what to do (although that does sound kinda’ fun in that freaky kind of way), but I do mean that I am accustomed to constantly studying and adjusting to my changing environment, preparing for inevitable things that I might never have seen coming. Wanting to remain in control.
I tend to micro-manage. I like to know that the things I invest my time in are things that see a reasonable return. That means understanding every sensation that comes into my life and appraising potential or pending energy spend like some kind of robot. But I’m not a robot, I’ve learned, and I need to give myself permission to breathe.
In the past, more often than not, I would become frustrated when things didn’t turn out the way I hoped they would. In the present, rather than dwelling on a situation that is out of my control, I accept it as it is, take a breath, and move forward. That is all anyone can do.
One upon a time, I was stressed out over a relationship that seemed to be failing, and it tore me apart. I couldn’t do anything about it. I felt I was at my lowest emotionally. Everything felt out of my control. Another time, a man flashing a knife accosted me at work, yelling at me from across the counter while customers watched in shock. I was terrified.
In every situation, the best thing I could have done and did do for myself was to remain calm, breathe, and remember to take things as they come, moving through my present one step at a time, flowing from this moment to the next, being honest with myself and making my choices based on truthful rationalizations. Remember:
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” – Bruce Lee
TL;DR: Remember to breathe and live in the present. When things feel overwhelming, pull your focus away from the stuff of your nightmares and remember where you are at that moment. Place intention in your breath, and give yourself permission to be. Stress is not a thing you need to overcome. Don’t waste your energy on things beyond your control. Let it go. To let go of your control is to be in control. So, exhale it out. Then, give yourself permission to breathe in the new, filling up your lungs to the very top, urging yourself to take those very last sips of air, expanding your chest. Then, let it go with a great “haaaaaaaaaaaaa.” How do you feel?
… Now do it again.