by Jeff McMahon
I was in bad shape when yoga turned my life around. I was in bad mental shape from constant work, every waking hour, and from work-related stress. I was in bad physical shape from mismanaging that stress through the conventional tools our culture offers to us: caffeine to ramp up, too much food and a beer to relax.
And of course these conditions compound each other. Being in bad physical shape worsened my mental state. Being in bad mental shape worsened my physical state.
I was in a downward spiral, thanks to a work ethic that’s as commonplace in Chicago as it is inhumane, and thanks to conventional treatment tools that are equally commonplace—everyday manipulations of the body’s need for sustenance.
I had been in this pattern for several years, thanks to a “wrong” turn on my spiritual path. All my life I’ve been interested in eastern philosophies that insist on quieting the mind, as well as western philosophies that depend on the mind. But my philosophies had fallen out of balance.
First came graduate school, and then a job in a workplace that exalts the mind above other human faculties. I had naively adopted those values.
That worked for a while before I found myself in the downward spiral, plummeting, with no idea how to operate my parachute.
Of course, I realize now that this detour though the exaltation of mind was part of my spiritual journey all along. I can see it now as a brilliant curveball that relaunched my practice with focus and vigor.
As I was writing this post, Tricycle magazine sent out this quote, on that point, in its Daily Dharma email:
The Buddha found what he had to see by sitting still, but even he had to travel to get to that point, to see through the other roads that would lead nowhere and come finally to the understanding that the truth we’re looking for is no further than the hair on our arms. The lives of each of us, the Buddha was saying on his path, are a journey toward recognizing where we’ve been all along. ~ Pico Ayer
Where better to learn the deficiencies of mind than in a temple of mind? How better to grasp yoga than from a posture of desperate grasping?
But first I had to discover yoga.
Eventually the downward spiral became so intolerable that I knew I had to change my life. I just didn’t know how. I remember sitting in the Starbucks at Roosevelt and Canal one afternoon, bedraggled from insomnia, wondering how to change my life, when I looked up through the window and saw a sign on a building a block away that said “One Week Free Yoga.”
I don’t know what I expected to find in a yoga studio—gentle exercise, maybe—I just knew I had to try something. Kelly Horvatic was behind the desk when I walked into CorePower’s South Loop studio. She welcomed me, offered me a free week of classes, and taught my first class.
I couldn’t even manage a low lunge in that first class, but I walked out of the studio feeling better than I had in years, in body, in mind, and in another way—a way that seemed separate from body and mind yet deeply connected to both—in spirit, you might say.
So I went back the next day. And the next. And the next.
After my free week I felt happier, stronger, lighter on my feet, more flexible—so I signed up for a monthly membership.
After a month I began to experience the reversal of aging. I began to recover from conditions I had taken as permanent facts of aging—like stiff shoulders and hips, sore feet, the beer belly.
Remember those scenes in old movies where they take us back in time by flipping through the pages of a calendar? That’s what happened to me over the subsequent months. I had walked into that studio as a 45-year-old man in rapid decline. Now those years were flying off of me. I felt like I was 35, then 30, then 25.
I remember talking in the locker room with a yogi friend a few years older than me.
“I love yoga,” he said. “When I wake up in the morning I feel like I’m 18 years old.”
Now I do too.
But I discovered yoga in summer, remember, and all summers must end.
As we passed into September, I faced the return to the intense work schedule that had caused my downward spiral, a work schedule that left no time for a yoga class every day. Or so I believed.
Here I was, possessed of the most amazing discovery—a simple practice that had quickly restored my health, put my life back in my own hands, and promised much more—yet I was about to become too busy to continue it.
I couldn’t accept that.
“Work is killing me,” I thought, “and yoga is saving my life…. Which should I prioritize?”
At that moment I vowed that any day when I felt I did not have time to go to yoga, I would go to two classes. Work be damned. I’d just have to get up earlier, stay later, leave early—whatever it took, the yoga mattered.
Here’s what that vow taught me: work and life were much more flexible than I believed.
I had false beliefs that encouraged an unhealthy attachment to work, and those false beliefs, based on fear and security, were the cause of my stress. If my fingers weren’t on my keyboard, I wasn’t working. If my ass wasn’t in my chair I might lose my job. If I lost my job, my life would be ruined.
False, false, false.
By devoting more time to yoga and less time to work, I became a better, more efficient worker. I had a healthier mind and a healthier body to support my work — and to support the rest of my life, which also blossomed.
You may be thinking that your job or life is not as flexible as mine, and that may be true. But I had made the same assumption. As yoga made my body more flexible, it seemed to make my life more flexible.
Back in the days when I felt I might not have enough time for yoga, one wise yogi said to me, “Yoga creates time.”
In the years since, I’ve noticed that many of my co-workers, even those who exalt the mind, practice some form of yoga to keep their minds and bodies healthy. Many of the rest are in psychotherapy (which, to the extent it pursues mindfulness, can be seen as another form of yoga).
Recently I spoke with a new yoga student who had just taken his first free class at Zen Garage. He loved it, he said, he felt so peaceful—but he wasn’t sure how much time he would have to practice.
“Whenever you feel like you don’t have time to go to class,” I told him, “go twice.”
“Huh?” he said.
And I told him this story.
“Man, you should write an article about that,” he replied.
So here it is.
I don’t stick to this policy so strictly anymore, because I rarely feel stressed. But it was an important step in valuing my health. And when I do feel stressed, pressed for time, and the thought occurs to me that I don’t have time for yoga, I recognize that thought as the first step on the slippery slope that leads back to the downward spiral.
If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution, consider this one: whenever you don’t have time to go to yoga, go twice.