My yoga mat changed my life.
For a lifelong athlete– once a tennis player, once a power-lifter and (always) a competitor– that statement carries a lot of weight.
I spent the majority of my childhood and early adulthood in grueling, miserable workouts, in every variety and shape you can imagine. Swimming, sprinting, strength-training… you name it, I did it. In my formative years, these efforts were primarily aimed at increasing my performance in my tennis game, or later, in power-lifting and competition-based workouts. But as life moved on and these “end-goals” dropped off, I found I carried the same drive and mentality when approaching general fitness and health. If I didn’t feel to the point of collapse after a workout, or any type of physical activity, it was a waste of time. If I didn’t push myself so hard I felt my lungs would burst, I would be better off not doing anything. If I didn’t work out at least six times a week, I had failed that week in my health goals.
Of course, this level of physical exertion is unsustainable. Of course, I didn’t know that. And one fateful day, I injured myself in a workout and everything changed. At first, I didn’t think anything serious was wrong. I’d had injuries before and knew how to deal with them. So, I took it easy for a week, did some minor workouts for another week, then was back in full swing the week after–despite lingering pain.
But that pain never went away. I wasn’t in a position in my job or my life to admit to or deal with a serious injury, so I did what I always did: worked hard, and put the pain away. I did that for a long, long time. I learned, however unconsciously, to compensate around my injury, to avoid things that made it worse– until the pain so bad, so loud and terrible, that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I finally went to see a doctor, and the therapies began. Every possible therapy and medication for chronic pain, I’ve tried. Every non-surgical procedure, I’ve had; every kind of pain-specialized doctor, I’ve been to. And none of it helped. In fact, these things only revealed the extent and depth of my injury, and other serious health issues that had also gone unnoticed before in my body.
And then I stepped onto a yoga mat.
I loved the physical practice at once, finding the asanas strengthening areas in my body I had never before considered. I learned to find flexibility and strength to support my injury, and relief from compensating around it for so long.
But practicing, at first, was still an extension of my old mindset. Each pose had to be done perfectly, and as challenging as possible–if I wasn’t tired and drenched in sweat by the end, my time had been wasted. I would snicker during chants of “Om,” tune out the instructors telling me to breathe, to find balance in my efforts; to seek internal and external harmony. What did they know, anyway?
Something kept drawing me back to the studio, more than just the physical asana and the respite from pain it provided. I began to soften in my listening around what my teachers had to say, beyond just calling poses and alignment cues. One particular phrase stuck with me: “Your mat is a mirror into your life.”
Was my jaw-clenching practice a mirror of how I approached my life? Were my endless efforts, my fixation with failures and shortcomings on my mat a reflection of my who I was as a person?
I wrestled with these questions as I kept chipping away at the asanas, delving deeper into self-inquiry and the practice of mindfulness. I noticed some days that my practice was more difficult, drawn-out and painful; my mind unfocused and wondering when the class would be over. Coincidentally, these were also hectic days of high stress, either at work or in my personal life. With introspection and the ever-present mantra “mat as mirror” in my mind, I began to connect a pattern with how I handled stress– or rather, let stress handle me. I worked, (and am still working!), on finding peace and solace amidst difficult situations, picturing myself as a force against them and not them against me. Similarly, I try to picture myself as a force in my yoga practice when it becomes challenging, not the challenge controlling me.
Other personality traits, both negative and positive, became apparent as I tested this mantra “mat as mirror.” I already knew that I loved to work hard, but I found that I didn’t know where to let ease balance my efforts. My mat showed me that I didn’t know how to give myself a break, to show grace and love towards myself, and not push away pain or fatigue. It was (and still is!) an active reminder to myself as I practice, to let ease into my life and body when I need it, to cultivate “sthira sukha” as a lifestyle and philosophy.
Another notable example of “mat as mirror” was my self-talk throughout my practice, specifically as I held balance poses. I remember thinking, “you will fall, you will fall,” every time I came close to losing my balance; and, consequently, I would fall. I identified my self-talk in other life-situations was comparably negative or defeatist, whether about my ability in a task at work or in my relationships. I consciously began to change my inner dialogue around balance poses; instead thinking “you are strong and stable.” This shift in my daily practice on my mat is slowly transferring into my everyday life, and I have found myself more at ease and confident as a result.
The wonderful thing about this practice is that it gives us the chance to do all of this inquiry, self-examination and introspection–and to start anew each day. “Mat as mirror” has become integral to who I am as a person, as a practitioner, and now as a teacher– a daily reminder for myself and my students. We are complete beings–the same person, the same body in every situation; we cannot remove parts or dilute ourselves based on external factors.
Our mats, and our practice, hold power and potential beyond the mere physical postures. Are we pushing ourselves too hard, past simple discomfort into pain? Do we do that in other areas of our lives? Or are we not pushing ourselves hard enough, giving up when challenges arise? Is that likewise how we handle difficulties outside the studio?
My yoga mat has been a gateway to freedom, empowerment, and self-discovery. It is a mirror I hold to myself daily, not solely for deep, personal inquiry, but sometimes just for a mood check or a body scan–how I’m feeling or moving. My mat reveals truths about all parts of my life that are sometimes too shrouded or elusive; it reminds me to stay present and connected in my body. It has (and still is) working on me just as I work upon it, showing me who I am and reminding me that I am not fixed or immutable.
My mat is my mirror.
My mat changed my life.