One yoginis journey to discovering yoga in everyday life.
I gave up ice hockey for horseback riding. It’s not a sports story you hear every day but it’s true, and yoga made me do it. With a demanding job running a personal training studio, I saw the benefits of ice hockey as a great way to keep fit and burn off stress, to learn how to perform with a synergy of players, and also achieve those instantly gratifying highs of personal best performances. I played up to five days a week. My car perpetually emitted a powerful locker room odour, as my equipment never got a chance to dry out between games. I loved the pre-game anticipatory buzz. I thrilled at the speed and intensity of the play, and I always felt a sense of pride when I peeled my equipment off, steaming with well-earned heat and sweat.
I started playing hockey at a time in my life when my confidence and self-esteem needed a boost, and hockey gave me this in spades. Then one fateful spring, in the lull between winter and summer hockey seasons, I signed up for a series of yoga classes. Almost immediately I realized that through yoga I was being offered the learning opportunity that I had been seeking my whole life. A door was being opened that offered a way to expand my understanding of my self and my world far beyond the wisdom attained through sport, business, or schooling. This was a way to discover myself apart from my strong muscles and pounding heart, far above my logic and intellect, beyond my preconceptions about, well, everything.
Yoga gave me a chance to be in my self in a whole new way, to learn and grow and achieve without the distraction of measurements like grades, goals, and scoreboards. By the next hockey season, having experienced the very different kind of bliss that yoga could offer, I saw that ice hockey was not a sport that was helping me to balance my already over-stimulated system. I realized that I needed a sport that challenged me, but was steadier and more introspective. With yoga already firmly embedded in my daily life, I needed a sport that offered me a chance to learn to approach my goals with calmness, to realize the power of patience, and use finesse rather than brute strength to reach my objectives. So, I hung up my skates and wandered into the nearest riding stable for a whole new sports experience.
Having taken a ten-year hiatus from riding horses, my first day back in the saddle made me wonder why I ever left the barn in the first place. There is something so magical about riding. The ‘oneness’ of riding has been stated so many times it has become a cliché, yet one that still rings true. The experience of riding a horse really is a oneness; a merging of two beings, two attitudes, two ambitions. Every time you slip into the saddle you are creating a marriage of kinds, one that constantly requires those golden ‘four ‘C’s’ of relationships: communication, commitment, compromise, and compassion. Not always an easy process, but when achieved with grace and finesse, this union between human and horse can build a synergy that is poetry to watch, and absolute bliss to experience. However, just as in the practice of yoga, before the bliss come the blisters.
As a beginner I had two challenges ahead of me; to master the physical ride; and to master my mental ride. I had to learn how to get myself and an 800 pound horse safely over a series of obstacles with some measure of grace and dignity, this alone was enough of a challenge yet compounding this, I also had to learn how to master many aspects of my self. There were many days of intense physical work, followed by sore muscles, chafed calves and a thinly veiled animosity towards my coach.
There were also days of intense psychological challenge as I focussed on overcoming my mental and physical habits, facing many of my fears, and keeping my easily distracted mind on one task at a time. These days were always more exhausting than the days of physical work, and were followed by a period of processing that had me questioning myself; seeing clearly for the first time my demanding and impulsive nature, and my tendency towards a tenacity that could sometimes be overwhelming for those around me. I was not only seeing my impact on myself as I drove to succeed, but also my impact on those around me, in particular my horse. Addressing these habits became a priority, and you could say that my horse was the one that led me through the first steps of learning patience and compassion. It was during these periods of self-discovery that I occasionally questioned why I was even riding in the first place. But, my frustration always faded along with the bumps and bruises, only to reveal new strength, balance and agility of both body and mind.
In the midst of all this inner turbulence, I also had to learn a new language. Horses don’t speak English, or any other tongue for that matter. Horses speak clear aids, they speak subtle cues, and they speak energy. One of my greatest lessons was that you cannot successfully communicate in the language of energy if you are tense, anxious, distracted, or frustrated. This is where yoga came in. As I developed as a rider, I was able to utilize the skills that I was learning in yoga in order to balance my energy before riding; breathing, relaxing my body, focussing my mind. Simultaneously, I was able to bring to my practice skills that I was learning as a rider. In yoga I was taught that it is important to let go of the past, not to cling to old mistakes or old ideas of the self, as this can prevent us from becoming more than our past. ‘Be in the Now’ was the mantra I heard daily. But, what did it mean? ‘I am here now’, I used to think, ‘where else would I be?’ Through riding, I got the practical experience I needed to understand this vital skill. When jumping a course, if you are thinking about the rail you had down on the last fence while you are approaching your next obstacle, you risk taking another rail down. It is essential in riding that you let go of your past, even the past that exists only seconds ago, to triumph in the now.
I often expressed my revelations during lessons, and one of my coaches scoffed at my metaphysical efforts, “I don’t need yoga” he said in his Southern drawl, “I’m already at one with myself”. At the time I laughed it off, ‘just another sceptic’ I thought. ‘He doesn’t know what he’s missing’. But, over time I realized that (yet again) he was right. Good riders are practicing yoga in the saddle, whether they know it or not. They are sensitive to their own energy, and the energy of their equine partner. They are in tune with their bodies; using posture, centre of gravity, shifts of weight and subtle cues to communicate with their mount. Good riders are able to balance their emotions while in the saddle. They understand that their thoughts and feelings are directly impacting their horse’s ability to relax and perform well. Good riders can see the big picture – the whole course, the full showing season, their horses’ career – while maintaining a focus on each fence as they prepare, take flight, land, and prepare again. Good riders know that there is an important balance between doing and not-doing, and are constantly refining a schedule of work and rest for the benefit of their equine partners.
After making this realization about the parallels between yoga and riding, I turned my attention back to hockey to see if I could find a similar bond. To my astonishment, a sport that I scorned for being brutal and primitive revealed itself as a sport of balance, non-verbal communication, anticipation, and awareness. Over time, I began to see the qualities that I sought from yoga everywhere. I saw performers on stage learning to let go of their pretensions of ‘self’ and dig deep into themselves, and sometimes beyond themselves, to express comical, dramatic, or desperate roles. I saw bus drivers able to shrug off the spurs of harried commuters and remain committed to each passenger, no matter their level of rudeness. I saw my own young nieces overcome their juvenile impulses to discover the arts of sharing, understanding, and cooperation. Every day I saw amazing acts of grace, kindness, compassion, self-awareness and contentment, and I began to realize that the opportunities to experience the wisdom of yoga from our own ‘mundane’ world are limitless. From the rush hour commute to work to the grocery store, from an early morning run to a phone call with your mom, there are opportunities to practice yoga I once thought lay only in the studio.
What this series of experiences have taught me is the real magic of yoga. I have realized my opportunity to take what I learn in the quiet reflective moments of meditation, and put it to practice in my world. I have the spiritual experience and can then translate it into a human experience. For me it is only in this ‘practice’ that true wisdom is achieved. Thus, my world has become my school, my playground, my theatre, my teacher, and my student as I practice yoga not just on the mat, and not just in the saddle, but in every moment. I no longer have to separate my sadhana with my more ‘worldly’ experiences. I no longer force yoga on my life as though it is up to me to bind together two separate functions. I have begun to simply observe yoga in every aspect of life, as though it has always been there, patiently waiting for me to wake up and take notice.
Today, I am still very much an amateur rider, and currently lacking an equine partner I can only practice in my imagination. But then, that’s a whole other article, isn’t it?
Heather Agnew, ERYT, Master PFT is an internationally recognized Yoga and Fitness Educator offering Yoga, Pilates and Thai Yoga Massage to clients of all ages and backgrounds, as well as a successful Registered Yoga Teacher Training Program both Australia and Canada. For more articles, recipes and yoga moves visit www.yogatrinity.com or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
First Published in the Mind Body Messenger Newsletter 2003