take it off the mat!
While yoga is magical and amazing, on many levels, I’m way more blown away by its applications in my life off the mat. I appreciate what it does for me physical, mentally and emotionally – of course – but I’m amazed when I’m able to take my practice into the world around me.
In the summer of 2001, I was in Brooklyn for my cousin’s wedding. I had only been practicing for a few years and was somewhat obsessed with Cyndi Lee’s (now closed) Om Yoga studio.
I was in my early 20s, and it was an exciting adventure to take the subway to Manhattan, find the location (in the days before smart phones) and climb the narrow staircase to the studio.
As I made my way into the lobby, I heard this piercing noise: one of the building’s fire alarms was ringing in full blare. I thought to myself “Oh man, there’s no way they can have classes with that all that noise. Damn! I’m gonna miss my chance to practice at Om Yoga” – but there was someone smiling calmly at me from behind the front desk, as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
When I asked if the class was still happening, she confirmed that it was, took my payment and got me pointed in the right direction, never once addressing the still-clanging alarm. I honestly was so stunned by her utter lack of response to the noise that I just followed her lead and got settled on my mat.
The instructor had the same attitude and demeanor: he acknowledged the noise and apologized for it, but never once indicated that we wouldn’t have the class as planned. We did the entire hour-and-a-half practice with that fire alarm ringing the whole time. The teacher raised his voice to be heard, and none of the other students seemed put off by the experience in the least.
I must have tuned it out, because I distinctly remember “waking up” after savasana and thinking “Oh wow, that alarm’s still ringing. Huh….” And that was it… I had a great class at my dream studio and walked back down those steep stairs into the hustle and bustle of the city.
When I was initially learning yoga, my very first teacher used to hold informal classes in her home – or sometimes, at her family’s store in Ybor City, a party neighborhood in Tampa. I literally learned yoga over the sounds of cars honking, music blaring, bass buzzing, people laughing and screaming. My teacher used to tell us that it was a perfect environment to practice in, because it would help us tune more deeply into our bodies, into ourselves.
I never learned to expect quiet from my yoga practice, and I’ve found that this expectation has served me well off my mat. Life isn’t quiet. Our minds aren’t quiet. Even in the most beautiful, epic scene in nature (which of course abound in our WNC community), our monkey minds are chitter-chattering away: ruminating about the past, dreaming and planning for the future, processing and solving problems we’re experiencing.
The whole point of yoga is to help us find the quiet within – no matter what’s happening. We might be calm and at peace; we tune into the beauty of that gift. We might be disrupted, upset, scared, angry, riding the waves of our emotions; we draw on our practice to tune into the quiet and the answers within. We might be practicing yoga in a serene space, and we enjoy that quiet. Or we’re in the middle of our practice and we hear the sirens of an ambulance – a barking dog – people chatting in the lobby – or construction noise.
Yoga helps me accept what is, without knowing what’s coming next. Sometimes it’s gentle and pleasant; sometimes it’s intense and loud. By learning how to stay present with my body and my breath on my mat, I’m more equipped to handle the unpleasant, unknown or intense experiences that life hands me. Yoga helps me enjoy the calm and quiet – and save that nourishment up for the disruption, which is always inevitable in this impermanent, ever-changing human experience.
Leigh-Ann Renz is a massage therapist, yoga instructor and part of the management team at Waynesville Yoga Center.