Without moving, right now, observe your posture. How are you sitting (or standing or laying down)? Is your spine straight or are your shoulders curved forward and collapsing your chest inward? If so, try taking a deep breath sitting that way. Is your pelvis tucked underneath you, creating another concave curve at your lower back? Are both your feet on the ground, balanced and even with 90° angles at your knees, or are your legs or feet crossed or tucked under you in some way? Simply observe your posture and then your mood or what kind of day you had. What do you notice? It is not for me to make your connections but for you to begin to become aware. Our bodies and the balance or imbalance, right down to our very bones, that exists within them carry the secrets to our day to day existence.
A straight spine with natural curves in all the right places is terribly underrated in our Western, sedentary society. I know I am not alone when I find myself hunched over my keyboard, my desk, my kitchen counter, my steering wheel, my phone, or my dining room table, not to mention nestled into my couch or a comfy chair for an episode or two of my favorite shows on Netflix. Even the simple actions of breastfeeding our babies or carrying our small children, school bags, briefcases, or grocery bags on one side of our bodies can damage our spinal and pelvic alignment, not to mention our ankles, knees, and shoulders. All of these daily actions, without our careful attention to repairing and adjusting alignment, are damaging our postures and in turn, how we live and feel our way through our lives.
At times, yes, it is necessary, and even instinctual, to return to the fetal position, in an attempt to protect the vulnerable, fleshy underbelly of our bodies because we feel either physically or emotionally threatened. This is not the way we are meant to go through our lives on a daily basis, closed off from others, closed off from potential healing energies or experiences. But sometimes, the trauma is so great that we find ourselves perpetuating any given state of loathing, be it of the self variety or otherwise, that is not only connected to our emotional state but can also be connected to our posture. What I mean is, we can be so miserable that our very stature is affected negatively by our misery and vice versa; it’s a cyclic relationship. Our heavy gloom hunches us forward under the weight of it. Our broken hearts curve our shoulders forward and collapse our chests inward so as to protect against future damages. And we find ourselves in a vicious cycle of sadness or lack-luster days because we are so closed off that nothing else can get in: no sunshine, no love, no hope, no dreams, no life. This long-lasting state of profound sorrow was where I found myself, wandering like a wretched, lost soul along the outskirts of my normal familial, social, and professional circles as a result of intense, personal trauma. I was shuffling through the motions of my life, in survival mode, finding joy in nothing except my two year old daughter. It was only in the brief glimmers of light she brought me that my subconscious compelled me to find a way back from the shores of grief.
I honestly don’t know what it was that finally drove me to find a yoga studio near me. There was some nearly imperceptible whispering that beckoned me there. But it was, without a doubt, the thing that brought me back from that listless life. And while I can credit many asanas, which is Sanskrit for the word “poses,” with giving me my strength and confidence back, I can pinpoint one that taught me that I could control how events in my life, be they positive or negative, affected me. There was one that taught me to stand strong and feel the balance, the stability, and the life that was within me always. There is one that continues to be my rock, the asana to which I return daily, to remind myself of my own inner strength. It is from this pose that all other poses originate, that all other poses have some elemental link to. I am speaking of tadasana, or mountain pose. It’s not flashy; it’s not fancy; you’ll likely not see it on the cover of Yoga Journal. But it is the pose that brought me fully back to the land of the living and continues to inform my life.
Like most new yogis and yoginis, I learned to do tadasana in my very first yoga class. Until then, I had been a stranger to yoga but I felt a peculiar affinity for it, a mysterious pull. For some reason, my brain and my broken spirit knew it was what I needed to put myself and my life back together after what had been a tumultuous, heartbreaking, destructive time. Those two parts of myself were conspiring together to make my feet move in the direction they needed to go in order to get me into that particular yoga class, with that teacher, at that time. And so I found myself walking into my first yoga class in a little bit of a daze, almost unsure of how I had the wherewithal to get there. I’m making it sound like I was addicted to drugs or was somehow physically inept; it wasn’t like that. But sometimes, when your heart is so very broken and your life is so grossly different than what you thought it would be, you feel like you may be withdrawing from something fatally toxic and you are only existing in survival mode. I have never been one to go new places by myself, especially to do something brand new, so this was a big deal. My friends can tell you that I wouldn’t, even after six years of working as a teacher in the same school, go to a staff meeting by myself. But I had been an athlete in my younger years and it was almost a welcome opportunity to put my trust back into myself in a way that I knew wouldn’t fail me. At that point I had lost trust in my own heart, but I knew my body wouldn’t let me down. I had always been strong with a more than reasonable amount of control over my movements and an almost unfailing awareness of my body in physical space. My brain and my broken spirit knew that this could be good.
So there I sat. First time on a yoga mat. Staring at my own toes on the ends of my feet folded in front of me in what I hoped was an acceptable sitting position. Totally oblivious to the fact that my life was about to be irrevocably changed. The order of that first class doesn’t matter and my first impressions of my teacher and how meeting her that day has led me to where I am on this day could be an entire book in itself. But that would lead you astray from the point and necessity of tadasana and how I discovered it; it wasn’t in that first class, even though I did indeed learn tadasana that night. That first class left me feeling just slightly less devastated as I had felt walking in. Just a smidge less dazed. I wouldn’t even say clearer. Just less dazed. If you’ve ever felt this way, you’ll understand how that’s possible. Clarity implies some sort of understanding of meaning. I definitely wasn’t there but I was infinitesimally more aware of the world around me and that I existed somehow within it despite my general feelings of not wanting to really exist at all. This new feeling, this slightest flicker of hope, is what kept me going back each week. Monday nights and yoga on the third floor of an old, historic brick building on Main St. in our tiny village with all the village-y sounds floating in through the open windows that spring were like buoys bobbing up and down in a storm. My storm. My buoys. My swim towards each of the buoys set far apart from each other.
The change each week was small. And I certainly wasn’t absorbing and understanding yoga in the larger sense that yoga is meant to be absorbed and experienced. Yoga truly is a way of life. The asanas are only one of the eight branches of the yoga life-tree. The word "yoga" comes from the Sanskrit root "yuj" which means "to yolk" or "to join" and thus involves the joining together of mind, body, and spirit in such a way that brings about balance, stability, and clarity both physically and mentally. This “yoking,” for me, happened over years of practice. As a yogini, it is still happening. And I hope I am lucky enough for it to continue to happen. But as I began to align my body in the asanas in those early classes, as I began to gain a new awareness of my physical body in space that differed from any way I had understood before, I gained a confidence and trust in myself that I thought was long gone. Physical alignment was step #1 back to Life for me. For a while, my ability to perform the asanas validated my existence, my strength, my ability. It was a good while before I moved past the ego-centered phase of focusing on just doing the asanas to prove I could do them, but this was the first thing that had made me feel anything other than misery in a good long while. I was going to hang on for dear life.
Any decent, beginners’ yoga class will start with an awareness of the spine, whether it is in a seated or standing position. One of the first things I remember learning was how to extend my spine upwards, creating as much space between the vertebrae as possible while at the same time placing my shoulders onto my back body by rolling them back and down. Herein lies the ever constant, coexisting polarities that exist in yoga (as they do in life). At some point, usually in high school, we all learned Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And so it is often in yoga (as it is in life). As I learned to extend from my lumbar spine through my cervical spine upward, I drew my shoulders down and away from my ears with my shoulders back, thus opening the chest and creating room for the breath. This also raises the heart center and pulls us out of the mode of protection and rejection. If we have more room for breath, we have more room for life. If we can’t breathe, we die. Simple fact. This aligned and extended spine is what I will refer to as “tadasana spine.” I learned this alignment in my first class. But, as I said earlier, a full understanding of how this alignment translated into how I went through my days did not come until long after. And so it was that I was capable of moving my body into tadasana spine in the appropriate asanas during class but never did it occur to me to hold myself in that way otherwise. This is proof of how deep I was in my own misery; I didn’t even realize that since it was so amazing to be able to breathe fully while in tadasana, wouldn’t it also be amazing if that was how I always held myself? But no. It was still dark times for me at that point and realizations like that were to come later on. Early in my yoga experience, yoga was just physical movement that I did on Monday nights; only Monday nights were reserved for feeling alive, which, in retrospect, is an absolutely ludicrous perspective. This connection between yoga and actual, everyday life is what many people who go to yoga class miss. I certainly did.
But there came a day when I had gone to enough classes and allowed enough life and light back into my life for short bursts of time once a week that I became ripe for the realization that yoga didn’t have to be separate from my life off of my yoga mat. One night in particular my teacher asked us to “sit like we usually do” (which, for me, was still a relaxed, lazy hunch forward), take a deep breath, and just observe. My observation: a deep breath in a closed, hunched position was nearly impossible. I felt tired, defeated, drab. Life looked grey. Then she asked that we readjust to tadasana spine, take a deep breath, and observe the difference. My observation: holy bejeezus. The transformation was immediate. I could breathe and the breath felt like a new mood had instantly moved in to town. The world looked brighter and I actually smiled almost involuntarily. It was cleansing. Lovely. I wanted as much of that feeling as I could get; suddenly having it only in that moment was not enough. My teacher then challenged us to notice what we did with our spines throughout the course of our days whether it be while we were sitting, standing, walking, or driving. She wanted us to observe and begin to understand the connection between our spines, extended or compressed, our chests, open or collapsed inwards, and our moods. I promised myself that I would try.
School the next day was much the same except for one enormous bright spot. I was walking down the empty hallway during my planning period, on some errand or another between teaching my classes, and I suddenly realized that I was walking with my shoulders rolled forward, my chest turned inward, paying no particular attention to my strides, and my general attitude was glum at best; I was preoccupied with everything I had to get done in addition to the normal burden of my invisible, emotion-laden backpack. I remembered the awareness I was supposed to be practicing and I immediately extended my spine upwards and rolled my shoulders back and down, which opened and lifted my chest, and I inhaled deeply through my nose. I felt instantly happier, more confident, and clearer. And I smiled. I actually, spontaneously smiled a genuine smile and walked the rest of the length of the hallway grinning as wide as my chest was open. I must have looked like I was enjoying my own private joke. And with that simple adjustment, my world broke wide open, but this time it was a welcome breaking. The yoga-to-life connection became crystal clear to me. I discovered that as I hunched my way through my day, I was slowly crushing my life force. No wonder I had gone months and months feeling the same sort of desolation after my traumatic life experience from before I began yoga. I was restricting the very things that gave me life: my heart and my breath.
There are many other aspects of tadasana, namely the sense of complete and total balance, from front to back, side to side, top to bottom, and the aforementioned complexities of opposite forces occurring simultaneously and not at odds with each other that have impacted and continue to impact my daily life. The pose is deceptively rich with wisdom and what it can teach us about ourselves; to anyone watching, tadasana just looks like standing up straight. But it was this initial and life-altering understanding of the connection between how we carry ourselves physically through our lives and the effect that posture has on our emotional and spiritual lives that has entirely transformed the way in which I approach my celebrations and hardships now. This is not to say that I always have perfect posture or always approach things with the perfect attitude, because I don’t; perfection is a myth that we all need to stop chasing. But at least now I know that when I’m feeling dreadful, the first thing I do is check in with my body and ask myself if there is anything I can do to control my heart-center and my breath. If the time comes where self-defense and protection mode is necessary, I will certainly allow myself the need. However, if I find myself in a situation where temptation makes stress, anxiety, and depression more than willing bedfellows, I first draw myself up through my spine, roll my shoulders back and down, elevate and open my chest, and take a deep, cleansing breath. By allowing that which gives me Life the space in which to do just that, I find that Life only grows from there.
This attitude adjustment has, of course, developed over the years since then. My life didn’t do a complete 180° right there in that hallway or even in the immediate weeks following. But it turned in a healthier direction on that day and hasn’t turned back. Another of my yoga teachers said to us once that the path to mindfulness and self-awareness is a path of no return. That day in the hallway at school when I first, consciously took control of my body in my regular, day-to-day life because of what I learned about tadasana in yoga class was one of the most important moments of my life, plain and simple. Yoga is a way of life, not merely a series of asanas or a class. And even if you don’t follow or even know the rest of the limbs of yoga, at least making the mind-body connection and transferring it to your daily life has a transformative potential that could lead you down the path to following dreams you may not even have yet. Opening yourself up, opening your body, mind, and spirit up, to the opportunity is the very first step. And so, when the possibility of the colossal career change came for me, “and a
s my heart raced and my palms grew a little clammy, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, rolled my shoulders back, and drew myself up through my spine; I knew that I had the tools with which to mold my life into something more. It was going to be ok. I didn’t know exactly how, but I knew it would” (from my earlier post, “(Metaphorical) Death of a Public Education Teacher, Part 2”).