Several months ago my doctor gave me the death sentence: “You have to stop any strenuous physical activity until your body heals.”
As someone who is constantly active, and who depends on the endorphin rush of working out to function as a normal human being, I was devastated. The most disheartening part was that for the past seven years I’d been casually practicing yoga, but in recent months had been challenging myself to take classes regularly and start exploring yoga at a more advanced level. I was finally inverting, handstanding, scorpion-ing, splitting and twisting in ways that I’d never imagined I could. I felt completely reinvigorated and renewed, on both a physical and a mental level. I could face the world grounded and fearless.
But along with my new life as a human pretzel, I also gained an aggravated herniated disc and a nasty case of sacroiliitis (curse being six feet tall and genetically doomed). After a month of being in excruciating pain, I finally decided to go to the doctor, and that’s when I got the news. No working out, no rock climbing, no surfing, no pilates, and worst of all… no yoga.
I started imagining my life as an ex-yogi, tears welling up in my eyes. I saw my beloved mat gathering dust in the closet, my muscles losing the strength and tone that I’d worked so passionately for, my mind slowly losing it without a healthy practice to focus on. I felt like Juliet after she was forbidden to see Romeo ever again (okay that’s a little dramatic, but I really was pretty emotional about it).
After a few weeks of wallowing, I started to shift my perspective. There were obviously lessons that I needed to learn from this, or else the universe wouldn’t have so unceremoniously dropped this punishment in my lap. I’m a firm believer that the universe will never give you more than you can handle, but it will give you exactly what you need in that moment, even if it’s unpleasant.
This is what I’ve learned from taking a break from yoga (besides the fact that I do yoga so I don’t kill people).
1. How to be humble. No longer was I the “star of the class.” I could barely touch my toes, let alone stretch gracefully into king dancer or slide into hanumanasana. Doing a simple vinyasa would drench me in sweat, and my arms quivered in chaturanga. I used to love exploring beautiful places and taking photos of myself in challenging yoga poses to share on Instagram and Facebook. Falling out of my yoga practice made me realize that that isn’t “yoga,” that’s showing off. Yoga is an introspective practice that requires humility. You don’t need anyone else’s validation or approval. You only need to know that you’re exactly where you’re meant to be in your practice at that moment.
2. How to respect my body. I had to slow down and really listen to my body and what it was telling me. I love a good challenge, and in yoga classes I would consistently push myself deeper and deeper into poses without thinking twice about the repercussions. Every good yoga teacher knows to tell their students not to push themselves, and to go at their body’s own unique pace. I needed this injury to remind me of that. It’s not a competition, especially not a competition with myself to “get better.”
3. How to meditate. As an active person, yoga practice and gym time were my forms of meditation. It always felt hard to make time to meditate, even though I always felt ten thousand times more grounded and sane when I did. When I stopped doing yoga, I started feeling homicidal. I only wish I was joking. Everyone seemed especially obnoxious, and the stress from small tasks was debilitating. I became so highly strung that I couldn’t sleep or eat, and every day I woke up with tension headaches that made me cross-eyed with pain. When talking to my yoga teacher about these problems, she looked at me, smiled, and said that this was the Universe challenging me to focus on my meditation practice. Grumbling something about my impossible schedule under my breath, I retreated and started committing time to meditate. Although hard at first, it’s now become second-nature to find small periods of quiet where I can retreat and let go. Even if I can only find five minutes of time, I feel an exponential difference in my mental state.
4. How to deal with stress without yoga. For the longest time, yoga was my go-to for stress relief. Job trouble? Practice. Relationship problems? Practice. Anxiety? Practice. It was the answer to virtually everything. Having to stop practicing yoga forced me to seek out other ways to cope with stress. I started taking walks in beautiful places. I started reading. I started reaching out to my friends to lean on them, rather than retreating into my introverted shell and going to silently practice yoga. From that, I learned how to express my emotions in times of turmoil. I took up gardening, and now have a porch full of beautiful plants and succulents that greet me every morning. I started writing. That’s been the biggest gift of all. I discovered countless other things that bring me joy and keep me grounded. My toolbox for handling stress has expanded because of this experience.
5. How to go with the flow. For the longest time, I was fighting back against my diagnosis. A hard-headed Taurus, I didn’t want to give up what I loved so much. I pushed myself to practice harder, ignore the pain, brush it off. But when I found myself curled in the fetal position, stiff with pain and unable to move at all, I realized I had to step back and let go. Sometimes things are thrown your way that are out of your control and may not seem fair, but they’re happening for a reason so you might as well sit back and take notes. When studying world religions, I came across this quote from Lao Tzu: “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” You can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you respond to those changes. You can fight back and swim against the current, miserable and struggling, or you can make the most of floating downstream and learn how not to fall out of the boat next time.
So if you should find yourself in the midst of a life lesson that seems overwhelming, take a step back and appreciate what the Universe is trying to teach you. I guarantee you’ll find something of lasting value when you shift your perspective.