It was with some hesitation that I approached the door to the Be In Awe yoga studio. I was fifteen minutes late to my first yoga class. I had left my place on the west side of town in what I thought was plenty of time, only to discover what most new-comers to Ann Arbor no doubt must learn, that one-way streets can turn a simple cross-town drive into a twisting and maddening adventure. I was tempted to turn back and try again next Saturday, but with so much effort already invested, I decided to press on and hope for the best. I stomped the snow off my shoes and opened the door.
I was greeted by the welcoming smile of Jody, the organizer of Ann Arbor Outdoor Yoga. I later learned that during the warmer months the classes where held outside on a large deck surrounded by the natural beauty which Ann Arbor is so blessed. For now, classes were being held, warm and cozy, in an unassuming house set back from the noise and bustle of the road. Spread out around the comfortable room were eight other aspiring yogis well along in their class.
Quietly, I slipped off my shoes and hung up my coat. Jody pointed to an open spot on the floor where I could unroll my mat. She asked me to spend a few minutes in Savasana, the asana of complete relaxation also known as the corpse pose, before joining the class. I rolled out my mat and laid flat on my back, my feet turned out, my arms at my sides, palms turned up in a gesture of receiving. I waited for my heart rate to slow and my breathing to deepen. One's thoughts are also supposed to slow, but mine couldn't help but wander.
Over the past two months, like many others in these difficult economic times, I had experienced some major changes in my life. I had been laid-off from my job. Fortunately, I had found a new one relatively quickly, one that required that I move. I was thankful to be moving to Ann Arbor, a city I have always admired for its creative spirit and emphasis on active healthy living. As fortunate as I felt, these were still major changes and they were taking their toll on my state of mind. I tried to relax my mind and bring it back to the present moment.
"One, two, One-two," Becky, today's teacher, was saying over and over. Her voice, strong and encouraging, was leading the class through a rigorous breathing exercise. As she said "one," I could hear the entire class forcefully pushing air out of their lungs. On "Two," I could just barely hear the air flowing back in through their noses. "Push the air out and with it all the toxins, all the things you don't need any more," she told the class. "Then, just relax and feel the healing oxygen flow back in."
Sivananda Yoga, the type of yoga practiced at Outdoor Yoga, places breathing at the center of all its practices. From what I have come to understand, by paying attention to our breathing we become more in sync with the natural world through this very basic rhythm of taking in what we need and discharging what we no longer need. Breathing activates what yoga masters call prana, the vital life force. Through breathing exercises, called pranayamas, we can make active this vital force and enhance its healing influence in our lives.
After finishing my Savasana, I raised myself up to a cross-legged sitting position and joined the class. Becky's voice was now calm and gentle,"Inhale, exhale," as she guided the class into calm inhales, and long relaxing exhales. "Feel the white light flowing up and down your spine," she said.
Despite my efforts to stay with the class, my mind continued to wander. I thought about how the events of the past two months had forced me to expel many things from my life. Things that at one time had served me well, but were now no longer needed. I had moved from a two bedroom house into a small one bedroom apartment with all of two very small closets. I repeated to myself the standard mover's lament, "How had I accumulated so much stuff?"
Some of it was easy to be rid of. I filled large black plastic garbage bags with stuff that I should have thrown out long ago and marched them to the curb. That overstuffed chair that I never used could go. I had two beds, I was pretty sure I only needed one. I kept my favorite desk and took the other one to Salvation Army. This isn't so bad, I thought.
After breathing exercises, we went back into Savasana. We put our arms over our heads. "Stretch," we were told,"now relax." There is a lot of relaxing in Sivananda Yoga, I like that. "Feel the benefits of our breathing in your entire body." Next we were standing and doing Sun Salutations. I looked over at the others to learn the steps to this intricate set of poses. At the end of each one we stood with our hands at our chests, palms pressed together. I could feel my heart working, pumping blood through my arteries and veins, then on to the next set.
After the Sun Salutations came the Shoulder Stand, an advanced asana. "Does everyone know this pose?" Becky asked. Looking over at me. I shook my head. As she talked the class through the pose, she came over and showed me how to place my hands at the small of my back for support, then told me to stretch high with my feet pointing to the ceiling. My chin was firmly pressed into my chest and I could feel the blood rushing to my head. More challenging still, she asked us to try to move our legs back, keeping them straight, and see if we could touch the floor behind our heads. I was rethinking my earlier decision not to turn back. "Relax into the resistance," Becky told us.
There was resistance, no doubt about that. I had borrowed a friend's pick-up and through several back-straining trips over one weekend managed to transfer my things to my new place. That Sunday night I collapsed into my comfortable recliner. I looked about me in dismay. My beautiful hardwood floor was visible only in small patches. The rest of it was obscured by the over-abundance of stuff piled all around me. The message was clear — more things would have to go!The next weekend I took a fresh look at my crowded space. "Relax into the resistance," Becky had echoed what my circumstances were commanding me to do.
I liked a lot of these things. I had at one time paid good money to have them. I questioned my decision to rent such a small place. Well, too late for that, I told myself, look forward not back. I rolled up my sleeves and re-evaluated what I considered essential. I went through my clothes first. I folded and hung up all the clothes that I had actually worn in the past year, the rest I bagged up for donation. I went through every scrap of paper in my four drawer filing cabinet tossing out every article I thought I might want to read someday, tearing up all the warranties for things I no longer had; until I got all my paperwork into a two drawer filing cabinet that fit under my desk. I looked over at my large bulbous golf bag, stuffed with a full set of clubs. Clubs that had not hit a golf ball in over two years. Was it time to say goodbye to them? No! I had my limits. I stuffed it into the back of my tiny front closet. I boxed up a number of books and set them next to the door.
With not a few misgivings, I drove to the Re-Use Store, my car crammed with the latest round of my discarded things. The attendant helped me unload. I drove away, my things sitting along the side of the large industrial building with all the other donated items from that day. On the way back, I became pleasantly surprised to find myself feeling lighter. A smile spread across my face. I realized that for each thing that I had left behind, I had also left behind an old, no longer needed, idea about myself, about who I was, and what I needed to live a happy and healthy life. The thought that someone might come across one of my things and be happy to get a good deal on something they needed, added to my good mood. As did the receipt in my pocket, tax time was right around the corner.
We were finishing up with a final Savasana. In a bright, clear voice, Jody concluded the class in a beautiful chant. She explained that it was given for the safety, strength and courage of the students as they go back into the world. I appreciated that.
Back in my apartment, I sat for a long time admiring the warm hues of my oak floor. The move had forced me to make space, to get rid of things that I no longer needed. It had been difficult, but I had done it. Now, I was ready for the next phase. Relax, and let the prana flow in.
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