Pushing things away doesn’t make them disappear though, and the parameters we face are real, whether we think about them or not.
If you accept the premise that the only thing you can count on is that everything is always changing, then it’s only natural to seek some steadiness in the midst of that uncertainty. Sometimes we humans try to deny our vulnerability. We don’t like to think about our unknown expiration dates, or those of the people we love. We don’t always want to grapple with the question of what happens after this; many people prefer to push those thoughts away.
When I was twenty years old, recently graduated from Columbia University, and not very sure what I was doing with my life, I chased happiness. I thought if I found the perfect, job, weight, and partner, then I’d be happy. This set me down a path of utter heartache. I spent most of that decade trying to get things right, or get myself “right,” but I realized that I was participating in relationships that crushed my soul and left me heartbroken. I was trying to rewrite history and get my happy ending, I was playing out pain from my childhood that I hadn’t addressed or healed, so the feelings that were driving my choices were unknown to me, and I was unknown to myself. I don’t believe there’s anything lonelier than being lost to yourself.
Thankfully, early in that decade of confusion I began practicing yoga. If I had to define what yoga is in one sentence, I would say it’s a process of coming home to yourself. Culturally, we are fed a story that happiness lies outside of us, but I think most people are starting to understand (having tried things that way), that that story is a lie. If you’re not happy on the inside, no job, partner or number on the scale or in the bank account is going to solve that. Also, life rarely unfolds like the picture in our heads of “how things should be.” The greater the distance between the picture and our reality, the more we suffer. If we feel powerless to bridge the gap, we become anxious or depressed. Attachment leads to suffering, yet it’s part of the human condition–we’re going to be attached to our loved ones, and to their well-being, and if they’re taken from us or they choose to leave, we’re going to be in pain; grief is a measure of the depth of our love, and while it hurts, it is also beautiful, because it’s a gift to have loved deeply.
We don’t have to be attached to our ideas of how our lives are supposed to look. We can learn to release our grip on the story, which we don’t control anyway, and allow people and situations and life itself, to unfold. We can open to reality as it is, which is not always as we’d like it to be.
You cannot love if you’re unwilling to accept that you may be hurt. Love requires acknowledgement of our vulnerability, and the courage to risk our hearts. We accept that everything is always changing, we recognize our fragility, and yet we love anyway, because what is life without love? This doesn’t mean we need to be reckless, it just means that when the opportunity for genuine love presents itself, it only makes sense to try to open to it.
The “try” part involves knowing ourselves. Whatever your tendencies are–if you tend to run when things get rough, or dig your heels in, or tell yourself a story about why it’s easier for other people–all that stuff shows up with you on your yoga mat, and you have a chance to observe yourself with honesty and compassion.
How do I respond to confrontation, frustration, a loss of balance?
How I do it on my mat is probably how I do it in my life. Is that working for me? On days when I’m tired or tight, can I give myself a break, or do I berate myself, or force myself to do things that don’t feel right? If I’m hard on myself on my mat, I’m probably unforgiving with myself off my mat.
This is the beauty of yoga. You’re never going to find happiness or peace around you until you find it within you. In the two and a half decades since I started practicing yoga, all kinds of things have happened. I stopped telling myself the story that I could never teach because I have a huge fear of speaking in public, and I started sharing this practice that has transformed my life and my way of moving through the world. I moved across the country in 2001 with a guy who ended up slipping a piece of cheese into his cargo pants at Whole Foods one day, thus ending our relationship, and giving me the impetus to go on a dating hiatus so I could figure out why I kept choosing partners who broke my heart. I taught all over town, from West Hollywood to Redondo Beach, putting miles on my car, and barely breaking even by the time I paid for gas, but loving every minute of it because I felt fulfilled. I met the man I married, had two babies, opened a yoga studio, started recording classes that we stream all over the globe, got divorced, but continued to co-parent and run the business together, which we do to this day. Was any of that on my five year or ten year plan? Um, no.
Life does not look like the picture in my head of “how things should be,” but it is gorgeous anyway. I have two incredible, healthy, happy children, a beautiful yoga studio in Santa Monica that’s filled with amazing people who come in and unroll their mats and do the work to heal and open, and a global community of yogis who join us. I get to teach and write every day, and talk about the tools that have most helped me navigate the ups and downs of an unpredictable world. I get to have a beautiful, loving divorce instead of a painful marriage. The one constant in my life, the one source of steadiness, is my yoga practice. I’m sure there are other ways to create a rock-solid foundation for yourself, so that you don’t go up and down with circumstance, this just happens to be the one that’s worked for me, and countless people I know. It’s not about putting your ankle behind your head or pressing to handstand in the middle of the room, it’s about flowing with life, and showing up with love. You don’t have to be able to touch your toes to do that, you just have to be able to breathe, and have a desire to quiet your mind and open your heart. You have to want to come home to yourself.
Ally Hamilton is the author of “Yoga’s Healing Power: Looking Inward for Change, Growth & Peace” and the co-founder of Yogis Anonymous, an innovative digital yoga studio that helps people everywhere grow in their practice. You can order her book or sample her online yoga classes at Yogis Anonymous.