Have you ever experienced a silent groan? That's what the class reaction was a couple of weeks ago when my yoga teacher announced that our practice that evening would be focused on foundations. Everyone loves and respects our teacher and the practice too much to actually groan out loud, but the silent, collective groan of the group permeated the room. Because no one wants to work on foundations, ever, and that's precisely why we must work on them. My teacher is constantly reminding us that the final expression of a pose is not the point, that achieving the headstand or the handstand doesn't make us better people, and that the journey is the most important part of the practice. I am always thankful for these reminders, because in most cases I have not reached the final expression of the poses in my practice. I'm still on the journey. Theoretically, I know this is okay and even good, but it's difficult not to become frustrated, to want to skip ahead to the moment when I'm standing successfully on my head and the goal has been met. But that's not possible, because the reason I haven't achieved the headstand is that my foundations aren't strong enough yet. As much as it sucks to admit, I have a lot of work to do.
Yoga means "to yoke" and is all about the "yoking" of mind and body, the connection between the mind, body and spirit. Part of the reason I love yoga so much is the completely organic connection between what we do and what we learn on our mats and what we face in the world every single day and in our own heads. I know a lot of people who are religious, and I can only assume that they get something similar out of their religious practice, some set of lessons and tools that apply both to their belief in a higher power and to the life they are leading. I personally have never found solace in religion. This is a whole other lengthy topic I could get into but I won't right now. I bring it up only for the point of comparison. I don't believe in God, I don't find comfort in organized religion, but I do find peace in my yoga practice, which is still fairly new to me and a source of constant surprise.
I've been thinking a lot about this concept of foundations, ever since it came up in class, because it resonates so deeply with me. It's not just on my mat that I want to skip to the end and just stand on my freaking head already. It's my entire life. I don't want to think about the foundations, I want to achieve my goal. But guess what? If your foundations are not solid, you cannot achieve your goal. Period. If your body is not strong, if your practice is not strong, if the building blocks are not in place, you cannot stand on your head.
Likewise, you can't do ANYTHING in your life without putting the work into the foundations. So when I find myself on my mat, frustrated that I can't get into the headstand, and I stop and think about why that is, I have to admit that it's because my core muscles are not strong enough, and they literally cannot sustain me in the pose yet, so I have lots more work to do there. Also, I have not conquered my fear of letting go, of falling, of messing up, so my fear prevents me from fully surrendering to the pose. There are several other foundations that are not in place yet that are keeping me from my headstand, and until I work them out, one of two things is going to happen. Either I'll never get the headstand, because I haven't put in the work, or I'll do the headstand but my lack of strong foundation will cause me to injure myself.
So I'm sure by now you're wondering, what are some of the goals I have for myself off the mat that I'm not quite achieving? Boy, do I have a list. I won't share everything I'm working on, but I'll share a biggie, one that I think is really resonant for a lot of people and quite timely given the recent death of Robin Williams and the reignited conversations in the media: depression.
I've been struggling with depression for twenty years, at least. I didn't always know it. I didn't always admit it. I spent a lot of time thinking I was handling everything just fine on my own. I'm usually not the kind of depressed person who can't get off the couch, which makes it easy for people around me to believe that I'm okay, and for me to convince myself that I'm okay, too. I'm not okay. I've come to terms with that, and I've come to see depression as a thing I can both suffer from and live with, like diabetes or other life-long diseases. I've taken huge measures in the past 18 months to handle my depression, too, like therapy and medication, and I advocate both when handled carefully and with compassion. But even though I know I'm doing all the right things, and even though I am proud of my achievements, MAN are there times I just want to fast-forward to a moment when I can say, "Done! Not depressed anymore! Healed!"
Guess what? I know you can guess. Say it with me now...
It doesn't work that way.
There is no aspect of my life where the concepts I learn in yoga aid me more than in dealing with my depression, because this desire to achieve that final pose - healing - is so great, and it is so frustrating not to be able to get there right away, and the reminder that I have to work on foundations before I can achieve the end goal is so valid and so important for me. And here's the toughest pill of all to swallow - I might never achieve the end pose. Ever. I may be a person who never learns to stand on her head (though I doubt that). But I might, if I work hard enough. I might never be free completely from depression, but I might learn to cope with it better and live with it, if I work very hard. Another possible outcome is that I might not ever learn to do the headstand, but I might surprise myself and achieve a handstand instead. So it goes with fighting and living with depression - or any other thing in this world that we dream of achieving. Nailing the perfect job, finding a spouse, having children, writing a Pulitzer prize-winning book...anything. You cannot fast forward to the win. You absolutely have to put in the work.
And it really, really sucks sometimes.
We don't practice to become perfect. That's a misconception, and any teacher who tells you that by practice you will become perfect is lying. Practice yields proficiency, and to be proficient means being competent or skilled. Not perfect. We are never perfect, though we dream of being so. We dream of one day just flipping upside down into the perfect, easy headstand, or one day waking up with the perfect beach body (what does that even mean, anyway?) or one day writing the world's most successful book. Or one day waking up to find we're magically free from depression.
Once we realize that we can not ever become perfect, it's so easy to give up. Sometimes it takes everything we have inside us, every single fiber of our being, to keep working, to keep fighting, to keep battling, to return to the mat, so to speak, to work on our foundations. But all we have to do is practice. We practice so that we may learn to find pleasure in the process, so that even if we never stand on our heads, we can take joy in the attempt.