On one particularly hot Florida afternoon, a woman named Jennifer was stuck in traffic, there was construction on her route home and nothing was moving. On this lucky day for Jennifer her air conditioning was not working and both the fumes from the construction and the sweltering heat were making it difficult for her to breath. She was angry, agitated and blaming the world for her bad fortune.
“Why is there traffic today of all days? Only I have this luck, only me! Why don’t I make enough money to have a better car? My boss is awful he doesn’t pay me enough, I do all the work in the office and no one even notices! Here I am sweating and dying in this heat, all because of everyone else!”
While shading her eyes from the sun and trying to look around the cars Jennifer noticed a sign for Yoga in the plaza to her left. She had been driving that same route for years and never having been stopped in traffic, she never noticed it before…”yoga” she thought, “maybe I should try yoga, my friends are always talking about it, but its probably not for me. I’m too fat, and I don’t even have yoga clothes.” Even though her mind was telling her she wasn’t good enough, something drew Jennifer to yoga that day. Maybe it was just to get out of the heat and avoid the construction, but for whatever reason, she made an illegal turn and darted across the traffic to get into the plaza.
Arriving at the studio she was greeted by weird pictures on the wall of elephants, and people with multiple arms, and a vague smell of incense. She was welcomed by a kind woman with koi fish tattoos on her arms at the front desk who asked how she could help. Jennifer asked about class schedules and said she wasn’t going to try today, but the receptionist insisted there was a class beginning in just ten minutes, “why doesn’t she try?!” Jennifer had a million excuses, no yoga mat, not the right clothes, sweating too much, and the over all feeling she would be laughed out of the studio. The receptionist assured her it was a gentle class, her clothing would be fine, and there were plenty of mats available. Having run out of excuses and not wanting to go back into the still not moving traffic and 95 degree heat she relented.
She took of her shoes, freed her feet from her nylon knee highs, and already feeling better sat on the mat where the receptionist guided her. she felt awkward in her work clothing as students trickled in with their stretchy pants and ponytails. She tried to mimic their movements when they sat down, crossing her legs, then uncrossing them to match the next one, sitting on her knees then awkwardly laying her forehead down on the mat. She was crazy she thought, “these aren’t my kind of people, they all probably smoke marijuana and sit around fires on the beach. I get hives from the sun and have asthma.” Suddenly interrupting her thoughts the receptionist with the tattoos began directing the class, and putting on slow quiet music. “The receptionist is the teacher? with all those tattoos? this place isn’t professional at all, what am i doing?! how is Ms Koi fish going to teach me anything?!” she screamed to herself. But relenting to the fact that she was in it now, she closed her eyes and followed along with tattoo lady, newly named Ms. Koi Fish to Jennifer. She wasn’t able to get into half lotus, and felt fat and awkward sitting with her legs crossed, then she felt stupid when the teacher gave her a pillow to sit on, thinking “no one else has a pillow, I’m the worst one!”
Listening to the music Jennifer began to hear the teachers voice through her own screaming mind, “inhale belly rises, exhale belly falls, inhale and fill the belly with air, feel the breath going from the diaphragm up through the belly and lifting the chest, and slowly exhale feeling the breath move out of the body, feeling the chest relax, the belly fall and allowing the air to completely exhale out of the body”
With her eyes closed Jennifer realized she was doing it all backwards, “breathing doesn’t make my stomach rise on the inhale, when I inhale my stomach goes in, I’m doing it wrong, how do I fix it? Wait hold on I think I got it, belly up like a balloon full of air, belly down, balloon deflating, inhale fill with air, exhale deflate. Ok I got that, I think I can do that….”
Jennifer’s mind suddenly was focused only on the inhaling and exhaling of her breath, creating a vacuum of time where she wasn’t focused on her work, clothes or car, but only her breath. Jennifer went in and out of relaxed states and agitated states throughout the practice of pranayama. During analomavaloma she was corrected with her mudra making her feel small and silly, and angry at the tattooed girl for correcting her, “why doesn’t she leave me alone, its my first time, I hate her!” she thought, then during retention she let out her breath and couldn’t hold it, and she again felt like she was the worst in the class. Constantly comparing herself to everyone around her she looked at the other students and realized they were struggling too! Some students were laying down on their mats, some were sitting up breathing normally, some were total rock stars, but everyone was at a different stage. Feeling better about herself in comparison to others, she looked at the teacher who was helping another student with her hand position, realizing she wasn’t the only one being corrected and maybe she wasn’t even the worst, her anger at the teacher melted, and closing her eyes she began to focus on herself. With her legs completely numb and her body feeling like it was near death from sitting in “comfortable” seated position, she was directed to table top by the instructor. Coming onto all fours she exhaled when she lifted her head and inhaled when she lowered down, “wrong again, yoga sucks I’m always doing the wrong thing” she chided herself, but with a few more rounds she did some right, some a little off, but the motion was good. Moving into the asana practice Jennifer was hit with downward dog.
Her knees wouldn’t straighten out, her arms were shaking from holding up the weight of her body, her heels were up in the air and she looked around to see if there was anyone near her that looked even remotely as uncomfortable as she did. Looking at the teacher for help she was directed to roll her elbows behind her wrists, put the weight into the base of the thumbs, push up through the base of the hands, press the chest back towards the thighs “towards the thighs?!? is she nuts? how would my chest ever touch my thighs? is someone else touching their thighs?” Miraculously as Jennifer was comparing her down-dog to the others she realized that it wasn’t such a struggle to hold herself up, awkward as she felt, she wasn’t going to fall. She was directed to use the same yogic breathing she had used at the start to relax into the asana. Breath and movement together creating skill in motion. While the rest of the sequence went similar to how down-dog went, she made it. She struggled, compared, was angry, then was ok, felt dumb, then felt weak because she had to come out of a pose early, but again felt comfort in seeing others around her struggle. Towards the end however she noticed something, no one was looking at her. No one was comparing themselves to her, no one was looking at her, feeling better and then looking away. Most people even had their eyes closed…what was that? Everyone, even the ones who were worse than her practiced with a confidence that she had never seen, a confidence in their own ability no matter how “bad” it seemed. This baffled Jennifer, “why don’t they care? Why aren’t they comparing? Why aren’t they more concerned with whats happening around them? Why don’t they feel better about themselves when someone is worse than them?” She didn’t understand it, but she wanted that kind of experience.
She was directed to lay down on the mat for final relaxation. Being guided through autosuggestion by Ms Koi fish, Jennifer became aware of her body more than she ever had, her mind really did notice her foot when she told it to, it noticed all the parts of her body, how interesting. Then it was just the music and her thoughts all alone, laying on the floor she couldn’t help but continue to wonder about the others in the class. Were they just being polite by not looking at her? Did they notice her work clothes? Were they just freezing her out since she was new? Her mind raced all over the place and she decided that everyone was judging her and she would never return to this weird place. Hearing the sound of Ms. Koi fish’s voice Jennifer’s mind returned to the room, she was directed to sit up, and finish the class again in the awkward “comfortable” position that she felt so silly in with her stomach hanging over her pants, and then suddenly everyone bowing to the Koi fish lady saying “namaste.”
The class was over, she made it through her first yoga class! Before she had time to think about running out Ms. Koi fish was upon her
“Jennifer what a great job! How did you like it?” she asked.
“Oh it was good, I did horrible, and I’m not good at all, but I think I like it, everyone else is so much better than me” she said in reply.
“It was your first class? Wow you did great! Congratulations!” Someone other than the teacher said to her, it was one of the ponytailed girls in the yoga pants looking perfect, but talking to Jennifer! “Is she talking to me?” Jennifer thought. Then all of a sudden all the people in the class were talking to her, introducing themselves, telling her about the different classes, asking about her schedule, asking if she’d be coming back, and complimenting and encouraging her. They all left saying “see you tomorrow” to Jennifer, not just to the koi fish teacher, but to Jennifer. It somehow seemed that they cared about her, in a weird way she felt like she was where she needed to be.
Walking out to the car, returning to the heat of the Florida sun, and legally getting back into the traffic, Jennifer wasn’t so angry. She didn’t feel like she wanted to scream and blame the world for her air conditioning and her job, she felt Ok. And with that she decided to return to the studio the following afternoon.
Ms. Koi Fish greeted her again the next day, finding out that her name was Leona, Jennifer inwardly cringed at how rude she had been the previous day in regard to Leona’s tattoos, in reality she had made her feel something that she never had on her own, calm. Jennifer couldn’t believe how excited she was to try this crazy thing called yoga again. She was anxious to practice in other clothes and maybe not check out her neighbors quite as much. She set her intentions and did the best she could. After a week of practicing yoga Leona invited her to a get together that evening to attend a meditation workshop and other weird things that Jennifer had never heard of. Surprisingly she felt herself saying yes and she would join them for dinner and whatever else she was getting herself into.
That night arriving at the studio Jennifer was greeted by many of the students from class, and other new people who were kind enough, and of course Leona. They were there to do silent meditation, but starting off with pranayama to focus the mind. Silent meditation? How long would that be Jennifer wondered, “I could be home watching Bravo Im sure some real housewife is doing something awesome tonight.” But she had committed, she was there, and just like her first class a week ago, she couldn’t leave.
There was some guest speaker there that Jennifer didn’t know, didn’t recognize from class and they referred to him as Swami something. They dimmed the lights, everyone sat on the floor on a pillow, in “comfortable cross leg position,” she was directed to place her hands on her knees with the palms face up, index and thumbs together, to close her eyes and focus on the space between the eye brows or the heart center. Instantly she was uncomfortable, fidgety and her mind was flying all over the place. There was no focus, no mantra whatever that meant, and she was completely out of her element. She kept opening her eyes, looking around to see if others were freaking out too, and she did catch a few, saw some people moving, saw some with eyes open then closed. But this time when she “caught” others with their eyes open she didn’t feel satisfaction, she felt more camaraderie a shared friendship in a difficult scenario. She tried but failed miserably to focus even for a minute through the thirty minutes of silent meditation. She couldn’t wait for it to end, and when it finally did she felt so relieved that she just wanted to run! But again she had committed to dinner with these people! Ugh what was she thinking! After some weird chanting in some language she’d never heard of Jennifer met up with the other people going out to dinner, she was directed to Leona’s car and off they went to her very first vegetarian dinner.
Jennifer was beside herself, first sitting on the floor for a half an hour, then no burger to reward herself with?! What has happening? Why was she there? Silently seething and planning on which drive through she was going to on her way home she heard the others talking about meditation. Some voicing their personal struggles, others talking about the true Self. What was the true Self? They started mentioning god and levels of consciousness, things Jennifer had never heard about before. She began to listen with interest, hearing about a place called Brahaman, why all the different languages?! What were they talking about? How can you get to a new place by sitting still with your eyes closed? What was going on? Jennifer became so interested in the conversation that as she ate her quinoa bowl she didn’t even remember about the burger she had craved, or the discomfort that she felt in meditation, all she wanted to do was get to this ultimate realization! That sounded awesome! Her dinner companions were getting more and more into the topic with each question Jennifer asked, never tiring of her questions, never getting irritated by her lack of knowledge. She felt exactly as she felt the first day of yoga, like this was where she needed to be, with these people who didn’t get annoyed with her, didn’t roll their eyes at the thought of a newbie, or not want to be with her because she didn’t just know what was going on. Instead they encouraged her to start at the beginning…”where is the beginning?” she asked.
They explained to her that she had already started, the five principles of yoga are pranayama, asana, proper relaxation, diet, meditation and positive thinking. Over the past week Jennifer had begun her yoga journey without realizing it. She had been affected by the love and energy of those around her, and felt compassion in her daily life outside of the practice without consciously trying to. She wasn’t angry driving to work, had compassion for those less fortunate than her, had tried to be less competitive and learn from the fellow yogis in class. She was meditating (or had once) and whether she knew it or not she was now a vegetarian…at least for that day. But maybe she would try it tomorrow too, Ahimsa didn’t sound so bad, non-violence sounded like a good idea, not something to ignore.
Jennifer felt so much for the people around her, she was unaware why or what to do with it, but she felt something nonetheless. Again for the third time that week she felt that she was where she needed to be, yoga was what was missing. One thing lead organically into the other, the principles lead her to her goals, and lead her to be a more giving and understanding person, a nicer person, a person who wanted to help. Someone who gives her water to the homeless person she ignored just a short time ago, someone who invites a new coworker to sit with her during lunch, and someone who practices compassion in her everyday life. Someone who feels the desire to help others, because not so long ago she needed help herself, and found it in yoga, found it in the people at the yoga studio and found the path to realization. No matter how far off that may be or how many lifetimes it takes to get there, the path is there, the goal is there because the compassion from within guides her through the principles daily.