I am glad to have read Phoebe’s beautiful post from last month, because it ties directly into what I have been wanting to write about!
For those of you who don’t know some of my background, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome back in 2013. I had been engaged with my yoga and meditation practice for over 10 years when this happened. I had also been working full time as a hospice chaplain for many years, and my work was starting to wear me down on a very deep level. I had reached a point in my body where I literally couldn’t even do downward facing dog or I would be awake all night with nervous tension. I couldn’t even sit up for my meditation practice without feeling like I was pushing myself too hard. My body had hit a wall, and it began to say a loud, resonate NO. All the tools that I used to manage my life and my emotions—my meditation, my yoga practice, even my clear-thinking mind—began to fall away.
What I learned through all of this is that a spiritual practice—if we’re engaged with it fully—does not just mean we do A, B, and C, every day, and that it just ends there. We have to shift our orientation constantly, and be flexible for what life presents to us. As all my practices fell away, I learned how to drop all the agendas I had about getting anything done, and instead to just actually relax. I realized that, even after all those years of yoga and meditation, I had never really learned to relax. As excruciating as the next year of healing would be, I see now that having that level of a debilitating autoimmune condition was the best gift I could have ever had, because it deepened my connection with myself and my yoga practice in ways that I would have never gotten to without it.
Before I went through this healing process, I would always get scared of the winter. I thought of it as a time when I had to stay even busier—do even more asana practice, keep myself socially engaged—all in the name of avoiding something gnawing at me deep inside. Our culture can really play this one up too—there’s always another project, another event, another drama we could get ourselves wrapped up into. Even the holidays can be just too much, right at the darkest time of year, when nature calls us into a deeper connection with an internal space, not just the bustle around us.
One of the greatest fruits of my illness is that I can now look forward to winter and enjoy all the time in the darkness. We are fortunate enough to live in a place that keeps us rooted to nature and a sense of quiet. The natural world shows us that it is a time to go deep within, and to learn how to open to all that shows up in our experience.
Sometimes what shows up to reflect on is not all rainbows and sunshine. Winter can bring us to deep places in ourselves—sometimes intense feelings or frustrations begin to surface—the stuff that maybe we haven’t had the time or space to really look at during busier months. It can be hard to find the time! And sometimes even when we find the time, we can take it all too seriously, like “Ok, I’m here to do my yoga practice for the next 1.5 hours, and I will be very, very present in my body.” This approach can be too harsh, and can hinder our ability to soften and to feel.
At some point all of us yogis and yoginis learn the lesson that we can take our poses less seriously, and allow more softness in. Every inhale can be a ventilation of what’s showing up inside. Every exhale, a gentle invitation to let go of holding. In the end, all of the challenging postures we work up to are just architectural cauldrons in which we learn how to stay soft and open, even as intensity ramps up. So if we aren’t soft with ourselves with it all, what lesson are we learning? That we have to buck up and push through our lives, not allowing experiences to open and change us?
Furthermore, our practice is connected with infinitely many other things other than just being on the mat. Phoebe had mentioned that after her difficult birth, she isn’t able to do a pose she used to be able to do. Does this make her “less” of a yogini? Absolutely not—the yoga comes from our relationship with what our body has to offer, not with just being able to get better and better at poses from some outer perspective. For me, that year of chronic fatigue taught me that sometimes the most powerful yoga is simply just doing nothing at all. It can be a brave and radical choice to simply shut the bedroom door, lay down in bed, put a hand on the heart, and say to oneself, “I am just going to lay here and feel absolutely everything.” This is an advanced yoga practice indeed. Winter calls us into that kind of space—one to just allow it all to be here and ferment, before we move into the action of Spring and Summer again. May we all grow and learn from this deep connection with the quietest season of the year, on and off the mat!