Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Yoga 101: How to Be Present

Lesson One: Be mindful when you wash the dishes.
My first yoga class ever was when I was a college sophomore. I had enrolled, not because I was curious about yoga, but because I had to fulfill a PE requirement and I thought stretching would be a lot less strenuous than say, power aerobics. I was filled with angst and rebellion, so I greeted every lesson with skepticism. My life changed in that semester because my teacher taught us to turn off our brains and live in the present moment.

Below, I'll share those teachings with you..

1. Be Silly. My first yoga class ever went like this. I was sitting on the floor with a group of maybe 50 other college students. My teacher pranced in gypsy-like with flowing pants and long red hair, turned on some worldly music, and instructed us to get up and move. I didn't sign up for this, I thought, but being the good student that I was, I did as she asked. I surprised myself by feeling so incredibly awkward and self-conscious I didn't know what to do with myself. I bobbed my head. We were then instructed to hold hands (I hated touching strangers) and dance in a circle. Mortifying. But something magical happened in the following moments. I remembered what fun it could be to let loose and act silly. When my teacher sat us down to explain what yoga was, I realized I had been in the present moment for the first time in years.

2. Taste It! One evening my lovely teacher told us a story about a monkey... I think... I don't remember the story, but I vividly remember what happened next. She put down a napkin and took out a big container of Sun Maid Raisins and dumped them out on the napkin. "Take one, but don't eat it yet! Just hold it in your hands." I felt the little wrinkles between my fingers. At my teacher's urging, I held it up to my nose to smell it. "Now, mindfully, put it in your mouth. Roll it around on your tongue. Don't chew!" It felt a little waxy. After a few seconds, we got the go-ahead to chew. But were told to do it slowly, with purpose. The flavor exploded in my mouth. Everything enjoyable moment was magnified because I was present.

3. Feel It! If I close my eyes, and really pay attention to what I'm doing something as simple as a sink full of soapy dish water can zap me straight into the present moment. This almost immediately turns something mundane into a pleasant and happy moment right up there with a bubble bath or feeling the sun on your skin after a long, cold winter. "Think back to your first kiss," said my first yoga teacher, "and bring that feeling of awareness into your yoga poses." 

4. Be It. My first experience with meditation happened when I had no idea what meditating even was. Therefore, I had no expectations to quiet my mind or sit up straight. I walked into the yoga room on a cold winter evening to find my yoga teacher sitting at the front of the room with her eyes closed. "What a weirdo," I thought to myself. But I sat down and mimicked her posture. I closed my eyes, became aware of my breath, and went into a trance. It was the coolest thing I'd ever experienced.

5. Absorb It. I think the reason my first yoga experience was so successful is because my teacher didn't push us to do anything we didn't feel comfortable with. "Yoga isn't about doing. It's about being." So if we didn't feel like "doing," we were more than welcome to come into the room, pile up a few blankets, close our eyes, and rest. I was sold on the idea of yoga when one day, the lights were dimmed, and we took Savasana together. As I laid there in the dark, my eyes unexpectedly welled up with tears. Before I could do anything about it, they were streaming down my face into a puddle on the floor. Thank goodness the lights are dim so no one can see this!, I thought, when it occurred to me that I wasn't even sad! Something profound had happened to me that I didn't quite understand, and I knew this yoga thing was LOT more powerful that some simple stretches.