5 Things Yoga Taught Me about Wayfinding

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I read a quote recently by the incredible speaker and author Nilofer Merchant. She said:

“If you want to change the future, you have to be willing to be changed.”

Now, we all might not have such lofty goals as changing the future, but what about changing our future, the direction of our lives? How might we open ourselves up to change so that we may alter the path along which we travel?

Over the years, one activity has opened me up and prepared me for change in ways that I never expected: yoga. I had gone to classes for many years but only in the last three have I really devoted myself to a true practice of yoga. 

I didn’t realize it then, but I now see that yoga has changed me both physically and mentally. Even more so, it’s taught me so much about how to live the life I really want for myself and show up in the world as the person I want to be. Without knowing it, yoga has helped me prepare for transition, manage my emotions during stressful times, and find my way through each day with ease and grace. 

As I reflect on my own experience in yoga, I realize now that my practice has been an important teacher and guide for me as a wayfinder, too. What has yoga taught me about finding my way? Read on for more:

Cultivating neutrality in tough times

I haven’t formally trained or studied yoga, so much of my learning about yoga’s philosophy and approach has been through my incredible teachers. One day in class, my teacher Ashley spoke of the Yoga Sutras, a set of principles that guide much of today’s Western yoga practice. She told us about Yoga Sutra 1.33 which says, “In relationships, the mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, goodwill towards those who are virtuous, and indifference or neutrality towards those we perceive as wicked or evil.”

Although she recognized that cultivating these feelings in relationships is what this Yoga Sutra is about, she challenged us to begin practicing this by focusing on the yoga poses we found uncomfortable or boring – how might we cultivate a feeling of indifference or neutrality toward those poses, she asked? 

Anyone who has been in an uncomfortable yoga posture knows that cultivating a feeling of neutrality is a tall order during those moments of tension. But, ok, I thought, I’ll give it a try. And during that class, I did. In the days and weeks since then, I’ve played with this frame of thinking a lot, asking how I might practice indifference or neutrality during other moments of tension or angst. Bad day at work? Tough commute in the car? Angry fight with your partner? What might it look like to transform your stress or negative feelings into ones of neutrality, indifference or perhaps even patience for the other person or for yourself? How might that change in orientation help you see the situation differently?

Press down to rise up

There’s a common refrain you hear in lots of yoga classes: “Press down to rise up.” In the beginning, I had no idea what everyone was talking about. How can you press down and rise up at the same time? The more I have practiced however, the more I now understand that this statement is more than what it seems. Here’s an example:

In my weekly classes with another amazing teacher, Jess, she’ll often repeat some version of ‘press down to rise up’ during very difficult poses like planks. Urging us to spread our fingers wide and stretch through our heels, she’ll encourage us to press down to rise up and feel our breath expand into our backs. To be honest, a plank is a pose that I personally have to cultivate a lot of indifference toward; that is to say, it’s not my favorite. But as I push my fingers into the mat and ground downward with my arms, I can feel my upper back lifting and my shoulders broadening. I can feel my stomach bracing myself and my breath flowing throughout my limbs and trunk. And amazingly, as that energy of grounding down and expanding upward fills through my body, the plank literally becomes easier. My feelings of angst or discomfort are truly replaced by neutrality (even if it’s just for a fleeting moment). And suddenly I believe I can do this – and I am.

As we find our way in life, we are often met with situations or relationships that cause us distress and worry, and in the moment, those feelings seem like they’ll never end. Yet as I’ve seen in yoga, our discomfort really is fleeting. Even the toughest, bleakest wayfinding moments do truly pass. Even more so, if we can lean into the discomfort, if we can press down to rise up, we can deepen our experience, change our perspective and turn our discomfort and pain into a moment of triumph and growth.

Find your people

As I went to more and more yoga classes, a funny thing started happening: I began to see the same people every time. Slowly but surely I learned their names, we started getting to know each other, and even went out to coffee or dinner after class. Now, I go to yoga not just because of the physical and mental benefits, but because it’s where my community is. When I don’t go to class for a while, people check in with me. When I’m struggling during a tough moment, my friend on the mat next to me cheers me on with a wink or a laugh. We’re in this together and we’re there for each other.

How are you seeking out your own community of supporters, peers and teachers as you find your way? Are you building your village of people who know you and cheer you on? As much as the journey of a wayfinder can and often is about inward reflection and self-discovery, we must look beyond ourselves for continued support and guidance. As the author Liz Gilbert once said, “When we come to the end of ourselves, that’s when the interesting stuff starts.” 

Breathe in, breathe out

Even if you’ve never been to a yoga class, you probably know that breathing is a big part of yoga. Often poses and movements are aligned with an inhalation or exhalation, which means that at a minimum you’re really required to pay attention to when you breathe during class. A more experienced or focused yogi, however, will also begin to pay attention to the quality of her breath during class, too. Are my inhales shallow or full? Are my exhales expelling all of the air out of my lungs, or just enough to take my next breath? For something that our body does automatically, breathing actually can be more intentional than we often make it.

During particularly challenging yoga sequences, a teacher will often encourage students to focus on their breath. This not only calms the body but it gives a student the chance to refocus her mind on the task at hand, to clearly see and make sense of what she’s doing, and to bring that focused energy to her physical movements. Not surprisingly, this attention on your breath can also help you manage challenging moments off the mat as well.

As you move through your day, try to consider how you’re breathing. Without judgment, just notice the quality of your breath, how shallow it is or at what pace it moves. Then, take a moment to slow it down, to inhale and exhale more deeply and observe whether and how that helps you reset. As wayfinders, we often find ourselves in moments of questioning, stress or confusion – how might tapping into the quality of your breath help you find calm in the storm?

Life is a Practice

If you’ve read carefully to this point, you may notice that I’ve used the work ‘practice’ regularly to describe how I view my yoga routine. Practice is a word that’s ubiquitous in yoga – and as cliche as that might seem, our work as yogis really is seen that way. There’s no true destination, no arrival point where we can hold up our arms as victors and say, we’ve made it! Rather, there is only continual improvement, refinement to help us grow and hone our mastery over time.

Paraphrasing Nilofer Merchant again, she once wrote that life isn’t about climbing the mountain, reaching the top and exclaiming I’ve made it. Instead, life is about reaching the top of one mountain so that we can have a better view of all of the other mountain peaks awaiting us next. In yoga, one day our bodies and minds are flexible enough to achieve a certain pose or hold a specific position – and the next day, they may not be. Today will be different than yesterday, and tomorrow may be something entirely new. When we adopt a mindset of practice, rather than of arrival, we give ourselves permission to make everything about learning and growth, about fulfillment rather than achievement. Some days, life as a wayfinder is full of highs, and some days it can feel like nothing but lows. But like yoga, wayfinding is a practice. A personal journey that only we can make for ourselves, slowly but surely.

If we want to change our future, we have to be open to the idea that we must change, too. How are you inviting change into your life and what is it teaching you?

Onward,

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