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I Bend so I Don’t Break

Cliché, right? Believe me, I hate using clichés more than just about everyone I know. But I think this one has played one of the biggest roles in my life thus far, thanks to my rediscovery of the wonderful art of yoga.

When I first started doing yoga, I hated it. Well, okay, maybe not hated, but as a fiery sixteen year old, I was mostly interested in yoga as something that would “up my cool factor” and allow me to fill time after school. I spent the longest hour and a half of my week inside a small Calgary yoga studio, checking the clock every 3 or 4 minutes and agonizing over how slowly the time was passing. I was so excited when class was finished – my favourite part, savasana – and we all got to go home. I couldn’t wait to get back to my typical teenage ritual of gabbing on the phone and lazing in front of the TV.

When I moved to Vancouver for university, I actually found the change to be quite significant. The Calgary I grew up in was not the bustling economic hub it has become in the past few years, so the move to a big city was quite intimidating. Not only that, but Vancouver’s reputation for being the fittest city in Canada certainly proved itself to be true. After a few years here, I decided I needed to step up my fitness routine if I was going to feel good about myself and my body.

Honestly, yoga completely left my radar. For a while, I was more excited about trying pilates, spin classes, and weight training at the gym, whereas yoga seemed like a waste of time. As a work-out, yoga was too slow moving for me. I didn’t feel like I was doing any activity at all, and I felt much more productive doing intense cardio workouts where I could see and feel sweat – proof that I was working my body.

I became increasingly fixated on my fitness level, weight, and diet, to the point where I was constantly berating myself for my believed inadequacy. I began to suffer from depression, which only further agitated my ego. I felt like I was slowly losing the grip I had on my identity: instead of becoming a person I, myself, wanted to be, I had built this image of myself based on social ideals, which included my being a straight-A student, star employee, and perfect friend, girlfriend, daughter, and sister simultaneously. My expectations for myself were infinitely higher than what I expected of others. While I granted permission to my family, friends, and even strangers to be imperfect, to be human, I was not allowed this luxury. It was perfection, or nothing.

Today’s society expects a lot from all of us. Soccer moms also have to be working moms, who also have to find time to be housewives. Businessmen are often expected to fly half-way across the world for meetings and yet make it home to have dinner with the family. Fitness ideals for both men and women are often unrealistic, and while we’re expected to eat well it often requires large amounts of time and money we don’t have. Furthermore, with so many expectations to fill, we often lack the time or energy to take time to connect with ourselves – time to just be. As a friend of mine often reminds me, each of us is a “human being” (versus a “human doing”), though we most often get caught up in the doing.

This is where yoga comes back into the story. I can’t even explain what drew me back, but last summer I ended up back in that same yoga studio in Calgary with my mom, who was eager to try something new. All of a sudden, the time was flying by. I was actually enjoying the slowness of the movement and the gracefulness of each pose. I was able to actually quiet my mind instead of worrying about other places I could be or other things I could be doing. For an hour and a half each week, I felt totally sane.

Back in Vancouver, I continued to do yoga twice a week, and was fortunate enough to enrol in a class with one of the best yoga teachers I have ever encountered. His class was hard – I considered quitting after the first ten minutes of my first class with him, but something consistently drew me back. His teaching style was perfect for me, because he challenged us to go further than we thought we could go. But best of all, much of his practise was based on the yogic lifestyle and the idea of mindfulness. He would often say things in class that I’m sure he thought nothing of, but that have affected not only my own yoga practise, but the way I am learning to approach life. Enduring the discomfort of a long-held pose became likened to the way we need to deal with pain and suffering in our own lives instead of indefinitely avoiding it. Furthermore, he encouraged us to smile during our practise: “Life is not as dire as we often think it is.”

Yoga has become more than just exercise to me. Sure, it’s a great workout, and I’ve noticed a huge improvement in my strength, flexibility, and balance since I’ve started practising regularly, but I still like to run regularly and don’t personally consider yoga as part of my fitness routine. Yoga is now something that I do to keep myself grounded and, well, sane. As a perfectionist and self-saboteur, I have an amazing ability to talk myself into thinking that life is too hard, and that I will never be good enough. The yoga studio is one of the only places I now feel truly safe. When some people feel overwhelmed, they may find solace in running, shopping, or going to church. For me, it’s yoga.

It may come as a surprise to some, but yoga is not about flexibility. It is about pushing boundaries, connecting the mind to the body and spirit, and exhibiting kindness to the self. Sure, yoga may not be for everyone, but the importance of slowing down in life cannot be ignored. It is important to breathe, stretch (body and mind), and rest – all three of which are incorporated into yoga – to avoid the mental disarray faced by many of us in the world today which pushes us to produce results and prove our worth, and which ultimately slowly breaks us down. We are all worth everything no matter what we do. The greatest gift we can give to the world is to just be.

So, for me, why yoga?

It is an exploration of my ability to stretch my limits. I bend so that I can build strength underneath pressure – so that I don’t break again.
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