I hopped on a plane to Jamaica right after Thanksgiving, strategically escaping the hustle-and-bustle-for-no-reason that hijacks the holiday season. It was very much a last-minute trip, which is totally out of character for me but pushing forward at full speed had taken its toll and I finally had an epiphany (breakdown) while standing in line at City Bakery. I had been working non-stop in every way imaginable for as long as I could remember and while all of this work had led to some pretty amazing and surprising triumphs, both personally and professionally, the sheer magnitude of my exhaustion in that moment crushed me with the weight of a million pretzel croissants. I booked the trip that very same night. Buh-bye. Comfortably sprawled on my lounge chair by the pool, mellowed by my margarita drip, I dove into the book I had started way back in June. Yes, June. I know. That’s exactly what I said.
Admittedly it was hard to unplug but I made a concerted effort to stop efforting, even in my attempts to relax. I didn’t go anywhere; I never even left the resort. In fact, the only day trips I took were the slow, aimless voyages on my raft from one side of the pool to the other. By the last day of my vacation, I had finally gotten the hang of this thing they call “relaxation”. I realize how ridiculous that sounds. I teach yoga for God’s sake. Shouldn’t I, of all people, have a handle on relaxation? Turns out I am just like everybody else, if not worse, proving once again that sometimes people teach what they need most.
The truth is, I love to work. Just name it and I’m all in. Is my right gluteus medius weaker than my left? I have an exercise for that. Is my heart aching from stale beliefs? I can dig deeper. Are there gaps in my communication with my beloved? I will sit in the throes of intensity and try to work it out. I’m proud of my efforts to show up to my life everyday with the intention of working hard, but five full days of naps and margaritas made me think that maybe I don’t like to work as much as I’d thought. I felt relaxed, which is to be expected on vacation, but what I didn’t expect to feel were the serendipitous gifts of relaxation—clarity, motivation, and (most surprisingly) imagination. I was taken aback by the rush of creativity that seemed to come out of nowhere. Qualities I had been desperately grasping for in my life were now suddenly served to me on the same silver tray that delivered my pool-side cocktail. I realized that all of those months I had spent hanging on by a thread, wondering if I had permanently lost my mojo, were merely the symptoms of burn out. All work and no play makes for a miserable existence. Shortly before I left for Jamaica I sat with my teacher Carrie and, fighting back the tears, told her that I felt like I had nothing left to give. She said, “You need to respect how you’re feeling and remember that these moments of contraction are sometimes necessary and are always followed by periods of great creativity.” It was exactly what I needed to hear.
I don’t need to tell you that rest is not respected in our culture. Devoting time to take care of myself triggers feelings of guilt, not delight. We’re praised for being busy, for having a million things on our plate at once, and one might argue that many of us have become a little too accepting of all the pushing and subsequent exhaustion that has become everyday life. I watch students in Savasana, their eyes open and stricken with panic at the thought of spending one more minute doing nothing. I have long, heartfelt conversations with injured students who are overwhelmed with frustration because their injuries have not healed, and yet who refuse to practice in a way that would actually encourage the healing process. I have, on more than one occasion, sent students home who have come to class sick or exhausted because they just needed someone to give them permission to take the night off and rest. Just last week I told a close friend that she tends to shoot herself in the foot and needs to stop overcommitting herself. Carrie’s words, so obvious and almost verbatim what I say to my own students, pierced through my haze of stress and rocked my world. To remember what it feels like to enjoy myself, to feel refreshed and full, was my biggest lesson of 2012.
Like my lazy days in Jamaica, I want to create the kind of space that allows for evolution. I don’t always need to push my way forward, I need to float forward with the ease and grace of my pool raft. My friend Jillian Pransky sums it up beautifully. “So many aspects of our lives encourage us to ‘do more’– to learn, succeed, earn, and obtain more. Even in our regular hatha yoga practice, we often wind up overworking and exerting ourselves as we strive for a new pose, a deeper ‘experience’, or a longing to achieve a classmate’s strength or flexibility. While exploring our fullest potential is intrinsic to growing and living comfortably in our society, we are rarely encouraged to delve into relaxation, ‘to let go’, as a technique for enhancing our quality of life.” Letting go—doing nothing—should theoretically be easy, but my attachment to effort runs deep. Even on my mat I catch myself desperately chasing after ideals or taking actions to the nth degree (“Must push…Must get there…Must achieve”). And while striving to dig deeper is a worthy endeavor, it is imperative that it be tempered with receptivity and softness. My teacher Mark says, “Please relax into all your yoga. Every pose can be done with a uniform breath inhalation and exhalation. If you’re pushing too hard, the breath will let you know. Listen to the wisdom and intelligence of your body. Don’t listen to the images of a pose you might see in a magazine or online – there is a pose and a practice that is just right for you. And only you can hold that pose. And therein lies your beauty.”
So I’ll leave you with two questions, both of which I will be holding close to my heart throughout 2013 and beyond. What if by doing less, we could do more? What if by doing less, we could be more? Instead of plowing through each day trying to force inspiration, strength, or will to arise, I want to practice relaxation and trust that what I’ve often pushed myself to find will come to me without effort or strain. There’s no better place to start than the yoga mat. Scan the body and let something go somewhere, then breathe into that space and enjoy the practice. “Just have a nice breathe,” says Mark. Dig, explore, refine but remember that you are perfect—perfectly enough—just as you are in this exact moment. Achieve and know that there is nothing to achieve. Floating forward, like the raft making its way across the pool, simultaneously aimless and purposeful, I will bring the smurti (memory) of Jamaica with me as I embark on a new year. Jamaica me relaxed. Jamaica me happy.