Yoga and meditation: where did I learn most about these two things? While traveling, of course.
They’re both prime examples of why part-time travel is so important: I may have tried them or deepened my understanding while traveling, but it means nothing if I don’t continue to practice them once I’m home. Travel is the source of so much discovery and personal challenge. But the fact is, I need many of the things I learn about traveling most…at home.
First, a small anecdote about how my journey with yoga and meditation began…
The first time I tried yoga I was a senior in high school. I had my two best friends (both of whom are still in my life!) who were all about this local gym. One suggested we try a yoga class, of which I was entirely skeptical.
“Isn’t that only for like, major hippies?” (Keep in mind this was ten years ago, and I was a teenager.)
My friends and I found ourselves surrounded by a much, much older (and not so hip) crowd in the class. The first thing the teacher asked us to do was a “lion’s breath.” I’m not talking a simple inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth — I mean letting your hair down (literally,) sitting in ‘cow’ with an arched back, and while exhaling making a ‘roar’ sound and shaking your head back and forth rapidly. Thank goodness we were at least mature enough not to just bust up laughing and run out of the studio (though there were giggles, and we definitely thought about it.)
That put me off yoga for a solid couple of years. This was back before yoga was very well known, or even ‘cool.’ Pre-Lululemon, pre-green juice fads. And while I knew what wheatgrass shots were, I definitely didn’t feel like I fit the yogi mold. And you can forget about meditation.
Fast-forward eight years — to my first trip to India and Nepal. I had been irregularly practicing yoga when it was convenient, and one of those times happened to be when a class was offered in the apartment complex I lived in in Delhi. Yoga was very different in India. Where was the workout? The tight clothes? The headstands?
I became a little more curious about going beyond my existing idea of what yoga was. I decided to do a full day of yoga, this time in the small mountain town of Pokhara, Nepal.
I found it to be a little more about calming your mind, and a little less about your body (‘yoga’ translates to the union of mind, body, and spirit.) I was intrigued by the thought that yoga was meant to be more of a spiritual experience than a physical one. Sure, it was great for your body — but the original idea was that it was a step towards being able to sit in meditation longer, not get a toned tummy.
Oh man. Just as I began to realize this, I failed to realize what I was getting myself into.
When the first class ended, the teacher approached me and asked if I’d like to stay for meditation. I remember thinking to myself: “Sure, why not. I’m here. Let’s do this.” “It’s probably like an extended savasana” (pose at the end where you lie on your back and absorb the practice.)
I was wrong.
The five minute extension I was expecting turned into a two hour guided meditation. Guys, I thought it would never end. My legs fell asleep, and then hurt, then fell asleep again, then twitched. I wanted so badly to open my eyes, get up, and walk out. But you can’t exactly do that when you’re in a room of zen Nepalis.
I was trapped. Just over an hour in (I think,) I surrendered to this fact and something strange happened. I hardly remember the second hour. I got it. I clicked.
Now I’m by no means a saint when it comes to meditation (or anything,) but I always keep the memory of that ‘click’ in that little room in Nepal in my back pocket.
It’s no small feat to keep a regular practice (though this helps) even when it’s just committing to ten minutes a day. Yet as I struggled with loss, uncertainty, and anxiety for a period after returning from my full-time travels, a large piece of getting through it I attribute to yoga, and especially, meditation.
In a world that increasingly asks for our attention, where my mind constantly has too many tabs open, where notifications derail our natural thought patterns left and right — I find that meditation has become essential to my mental well-being. It is the antidote to the exhaustion of life’s excessive demands. It gets us off the screen and back into reality. Not to mention it was a game changer in coping with my anxiety.
These days I have a twenty minute walk home after I leave my yoga studio, which gives me plenty of time to enjoy my newfound (sometimes short-lived) calm, reflective state.
If I can do it, so can you.
The list below is a combination of my own reflections, things I’ve learned from teachers, and reasons why I continue to practice. Without further adieu…25 Things I’ve Learned From Yoga and Meditation:
1. “You have to show up and suck before you can show up and shine.”
Oh, how I wish I could go back and tell this to this my childhood self. I was the student who never raised my hand unless I was 100% positive I had the right answer. As a result, I missed out on so many opportunities to shine. While I continue to apply this to my struggles in yoga and meditation, it’s applicable to anything in life. Falling down and looking like an amateur is just part of the process.
2. Life is a balance of effort and surrender.
This might be my favorite lesson of all. It’s so true of holding a pose or sitting through a meditation – you have to find the sweet spot between making an effort and letting go of what you don’t have control of. If you try too hard, you fail. If you fail to try at all — well, you’ve also failed. Put in the effort – in a pose or in life – but then be ready and willing to surrender some of what happens next.
3. Find the sweetness in the struggle.
I’ve had yoga teachers tell me to relax my face when I’m trying too hard (see above,) but I’ve also had teachers try and make me smile when I get too intense. The same goes with meditation: even when I’m mentally or physically feeling like I can’t go any longer, there is something simultaneously good happening. You can choose where you place your focus — and remember to laugh at yourself, always.
4. Neither pain nor gain lasts forever.
Sitting still for long enough helps us realize that pain – emotional or physical – doesn’t ever last forever. Waves of good and bad filter in and out of our lives. Who are we in between the highs and lows? What’s constant, other than change?
5. I can live without my phone.
It’s as much about disconnecting as it is connecting. I love my smartphone as much as the next guy (ok, maybe more) but all these notifications, endless pings, and bottomless inbox (sorry I haven’t emailed you back yet…) keep our mind chatter at constant full-speed. I find myself struggling to single task. Even reading a book – one of my all-time favorite acts – has become a challenge of focus. Yoga and meditation have given me the gift of an hour or even ten minutes where I’m not growing my phone as a third arm.
6. Life moves fast. It pays to slow down.
Seriously, what happened to this year? Wasn’t it just Christmas?! (Do you say this every year?) With our ever-increasingly busy schedules, are we taking time to slow down and enjoy? Both yoga and meditation help to ground us in the present moment.
7. You still have the ability to surprise yourself.
I’ll never be able to do that headstand. I’m just not there. Wait, oh, wait! I just did it. Go me. Life is the same way.
8. Silence is restorative. Solitude can be as well.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by how many awesome people I want to spend time with, or how many great books (and blogs! and tweets! ) I want to read. When it gets to be too much, I know that I need the balance that silence and solitude provides.
9. Where the mind goes, the body follows, and the spirit’s not far behind.
Same goes for any combination of the three. If one is out of whack, work on the other two until it catches up.
10. “It is not necessary to teach others, to cure them or to improve them; it is only necessary to live among them, sharing the human condition and being present to them in love.”
This was a quote posted outside one of the rooms in my favorite studio in Santa Barbara. In less words, to me it means: “Don’t judge.” For some reason, it really affected me the first time I read it, and it stays with me to this day.
11. Sometimes what we need is not to deny what we are feeling, but to identify it, embrace it, and maybe even release it.
If only it were that simple. Yet yoga and meditation are both great tools to work on this.
12. You are not your thoughts.
Thoughts are just that – thoughts! The second we get out of our heads, we realize that thoughts come and go and while important and often telling, don’t entirely define our reality. In meditation, I’ve been challenged to think about thoughts as clouds – they are always in the sky, but we sit below and watch as they come and go. (Along with this comes a great pun on ‘having your head in the clouds.’ Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
13. It’s not about competing with others. It’s about competing with ourselves.
When I first began practicing, I would open my eyes or look around the room at everyone else who was in my class constantly. What were they able to do? How was I comparing? Slowly I’ve learned to focus inward. The journey, the struggle, the battle…is really with yourself. Yoga teaches us to pay attention to where we are – and not to compare and contrast that with others. (Also: you’ll get much farther this way.)
14. Equanimity – aka keeping your cool amongst life’s inevitable highs and lows.
Also known as letting go of the drama, and the people who create it. Finding out who you truly are, and then making every effort to stay true to it — no matter what comes your way.
15. When we stop looking for the answers, that’s when they show up.
Ahhh yet another thing I wish I could tell my 20-year-old self. I am still working on this one.
16. It’s about showing up.
Don’t feel like meditating today? Have 500 other things you’d rather be doing than trekking to yoga class? That’s when you need it most. Show up.
17. Stop caring so much about how you look or seem to others.
Seriously, no one cares if your stomach fat hangs out during a certain pose, whether or not your legs are straight in downward dog, or whether you put on makeup today. They just don’t. And if you’re meditating, their eyes should be closed anyways. 🙂
18. Learning to be present, in the moment, is one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves.
I’ve heard it said that depression is the result of living too much in the past, and anxiety is the result of living too much in the future (guilty!) Stop blaming others for what has happened or might (or might not) happen later. How can you become more present, today?
19. Sometimes we need to move, sometimes we need to stay.
Yoga and meditation teachers will tell you to “come out of the pose, when you’re ready.” Listen to your body and your intuition. Stay if you need to stay. Go if you need to go. Stay home if that is what feels right. Get on that plane and travel if it doesn’t.
20. Sometimes the harder you try, the more you push what you want away.
See number two. Have you ever tried to touch your toes, or do the splits, without having the flexibility to do so? You push too hard, you’ll get hurt. So don’t force it. To me this pertains most to trying to control or stop our thoughts, but it also applies to chasing after people and things we want.
21. While there’s a lot we can’t control, we can work to create conditions that are inviting to what we want.
I’ve heard this analogy — the gardener’s paradox — that we can’t force a seed to sprout or grow, but we can tend to the soil, read books on gardening, and do our best to create a space the seed will grow in! Same goes for our minds, our bodies, and our lives.
22. Things we enjoy for long periods of time take on different meaning depending on your life circumstance and maturity level.
Yoga, meditation, love, friendship…my concept of and relationship to each has evolved with time. Our perspective changes as our journey does.
23. You don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to pursue what you love.
What’s available to you, here and now? Much of what is gained through travel, yoga, meditation, and reflection…we can get in our backyards and with little-to-no money, tools, or equipment. It takes basically nothing to practice yoga and meditation. That being said, sometimes we need a catalyst to jolt us forward if we are feeling stuck. (My answer? Take a trip 😉 )
24. Set your intention, take inspired action, let go of the attachment to the outcome.
Now THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is what life is about. If I had to sum it all up…there you go. The second two parts are the most difficult to me, emphasis on the last part (I think for a lot of us.)
25. The light in me sees the light in you.
(Namaste.) I just think this is the loveliest thought ever. For years, I didn’t know that this is what the standard greeting in India meant. I’ve also heard it translated as “the divine in me recognizes the divine within you.” Just lovely.
I couldn’t resist the most obvious (and slightly punny) lessons of all:
Do you practice yoga or meditation? Or do you want to? What have you learned?
In case you missed it: 30 Life Lessons Learned From Travel