This is a story about running but really it’s about yoga. And when we talk about yoga really we’re talking about life. They’re the same. How do we know that yoga is working? Our lives are better and more fulfilling; we have clarity and our relationships are improving.
The Sanskrit word prapti describes shortening the distance between where you are and what you want. Learning that where we choose to focus our energy is where our lives are going has been and remains the sweetest nectar of practice, even and sometimes especially when yoga/life is hard and hot, uncomfortable, aggravating, and there’s a voice in our heads telling us that we can’t go on or we’re not doing it right and should give up and admit defeat. I’ve developed over time so much compassion and gratitude for that voice—my harpy, ungenerous, frightened inner critic—because as soon as it suggests failure, I know I’m doing something right. To feel afraid I won’t succeed is proof that I’m taking a risk.
Growing up, I hated sports. Forced to serve time on teams, I wildly swung softball bats and slogged through swim practice, never hitting a home run or placing first. Assigned to defense on the soccer field, I skulked in the grass like Ferdinand the bull, braiding chain necklaces out of clovers. When the ball was kicked towards me, I jumped up and down, hands flapping, shrieking, “Somebody, do something!” In the seventh grade, I managed to get my orthodontic braces tangled in the badminton net during P.E. class. The universe had a message: it was better for everyone if I stayed on the bench.
After my father took over as our YMCA basketball coach when I was in fourth grade, he had a much higher stake in our victories and losses than I did. I would have preferred to hunker down with a paperback, lapping up a bowl of Rocky Road. Understanding that my dad and I would likely never bridge the divide between his obsession with and my aversion to activities that wouldn’t appeal to a housecat, I showed up for my basketball games to support him.
My father is a born-again super athlete. After college and before law school, during a period he refers to as the “lost years,” he supported himself as a pool player. He rented a creaky-floored apartment in Nashville, only blocks away from the house where he grew up on Fairfax, furnished with only a mattress on the floor. One day a little girl from an apartment above popped in and looked around before asking, “But where’s the television?”
The scope of his ambition changed one afternoon while hanging onto the door frame of his parents’ basement, when he realized he could only do one pull-up. Every morning since, for four decades, he’s woken up while it’s still dark so he can exercise. Last month, at 65, he finished a marathon in just over four hours, qualifying for Boston in 2016.
Throughout my twenties in New York City, I walked everywhere and practiced yoga, meditating regularly. As for running, I found it ridiculous that people willingly “did laps” or, on a treadmill, went nowhere as quickly as they could, with faces set in fierce and sometimes grim determination. I loved to sit still for hours, which I viewed as an integral part of my identity: not a competitive athlete.
Then one night, eating Chinese food shortly after my fiancé and I had broken off our engagement but were still together, I opened a fortune cookie that read, “You have to do the thing that you least want to do.” Stabbing a piece of tofu with one chopstick, I determined that the last thing I’d ever want would be to finish a marathon. Feeling waylaid in romantic purgatory—knowing my relationship was over but not having the guts yet to let it go—the prospect of running struck me as radical. Necessary. I resolved to take on a marathon. I’d do it with my dad.
“How about the half?” my dad suggested gently, offering to email me a training schedule. This will be a breeze, I told myself as I set out to jog the following morning. A few blocks later, legs aching, I realized I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into. I had to learn how to run. First, humiliatingly, I had to learn how to walk. What had my arms been doing my whole life? Coming along for the ride. They had no idea how to get involved in what my feet were doing. Anger about my inability to quit my relationship got me started but I kept running because I got hooked. I leapt through snow and cyclones of trash, when my fingertips turned white from the cold, and on the evenings when I wanted most to get together with friends to drink red wine on fire escapes instead of taking Epsom salt baths because my body was so sore. Still, again, most days for months, I forced myself through those clunky rhythms until it was easier and more satisfying to run than not.
On race day my dad and I stayed side by side. Or, rather, he slowed his pace to stay with me. He timed every mile so we wouldn’t burn out in the beginning. After awhile, I didn’t mind the rain on my face and the cramp in my calf went away. When we got to the 13-mile mark in less than two hours, my father slowed down to let me cross first. I bounded over the final 30 feet in a rush of endorphins and gratitude for my dad. I hadn’t broken any records, but secretly it stood as my triumphant Rocky moment: the reward in every step. I had challenged my view of who I was and what I was capable of, and the result was victory to my spirit. I felt my heart pounding; I felt strong in my body. My relationship with my then-boyfriend wasn’t over yet but in that moment I knew that it would end and that I would be OK.
The idea that sweating and effort wasn’t for me? Or that it was best if I didn’t show up? Or showed up only to give up? These were only as true as I’d made them, and they weren’t anymore.
Now 34 and happier than I’ve ever been, I choose joy every day. I choose bliss. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get upset, sad or frustrated, but I know that how I react is my responsibility. I choose to be here, wherever I am, and learning from as well as teaching my students to be present. That’s the breath. That’s the amazing grace of being present. On my steering wheel I taped a little piece of paper that reads, “It’s not them.” When I lose patience or get distracted or overwhelmed, I know I need to let it go. I know I can come back. I keep coming back. I fall and come back. I take bigger risks now, succeeding more and also failing better, with more courage. I don’t run regularly but I’m on my mat most days. Sometimes when I don’t feel want to, when it’s hard and my eyes sting from sweat and I have a to-do list that’s spilling over. It’s never a mistake to practice. I don’t always do what I know I need to do in order to show up and be my best in the world, but I know that practice is one of those cores. The times I feel I’m too busy or stressed are when I need it most. The extent to which we feel annoyed by anything in our lives is the extent to which we need our yoga practice.
To show up, to stay the course, to stay focused and intentional, to forgive myself when I get distracted and return to being mindful of my breath and to be present, to get comfortable getting uncomfortable, to trust this process as a catalyst for growth physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually: that’s the practice. That’s prapti. It’s giving up complaining and excuses to make room for what we truly desire. No one else can do this for us. If you’re searching for that one person who can change our lives, look in the mirror.