Learning to Just Be: An Experiment in Yoga

Photograph by Lindsay Crandall

I never expected to find myself in a yoga class. I was more of a lifting, running, pushing kind of exerciser. I loved to sweat. Yoga was at the other end of the spectrum. But there I was last December, attending yoga three times a week after a bad flare-up of my sciatic nerve. I couldn’t run or lift anything heavier than a small child, but I could stretch and flow. And I could rest.

I would go to class early so I could stretch my hip. The room was always dark and warm. Sometimes the people around me were buzzing, but often they were sitting quietly, stretching or resting in child’s pose. I was terrible at yoga. I lacked the balance and flexibility to do most of the poses and found, despite years of lifting weights, that I wasn’t as strong as I thought. The good news was that I wasn’t going to yoga to be the best yogi; I was there to work through the pain in my body. 

Class would often begin with us down in child’s pose, a resting place, an anchor point we could always return to. I would stretch out my arms and sit back on my heels. The instructor would talk about stretching out our side bodies in this position and that we should feel ourselves sinking down. Often, she would tell us to release whatever we were carrying from our day and set an intention for our practice.   

The year before I found yoga was chaotic. I had fully immersed myself in portrait photography and found I didn’t love it. My husband and I were planning to put our house up for sale, but the timing was unclear. I was buried in to-do lists and self-imposed deadlines, always trying to keep up but never exactly clear on who or what I was keeping up with. I was trying to enjoy my life and suck everything out of it, but it was sucking everything out of me. The firstborn, type-A go-getter in me was squelching my joy.

So with my face down on the mat, eyes closed and my arms pulling through my torso and hips, I would consider my intention: Be here now

This summer a friend recommended I read Claire Dederer’s Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses. I assumed it was a bunch of essays working through the yoga-as-life metaphor, or explaining how yoga is the answer to all of life’s questions. What I didn’t expect was a book about striving for goodness and perfection, and learning to let it go. 

Dederer writes about her quest to be the perfect mother, how it was a response to her own mother, who left her father when Dederer was a child (like all the other mothers who were always leaving during the seventies, she writes). Throughout the book, Dederer wrestles with the pressure to be good, to be perfect, to do it all right and not make a mistake — the martyrdom of motherhood. Eventually, after many years, she figured out how to stop striving and just be, a lesson she gleans through her yoga practice. You can never be perfect at yoga, and why would you want to be? The joy of it comes in working through the poses, not in conquering the yoga mountain. 

I picked up Poser in hopes of being entertained and maybe learning more about yoga, but what I learned instead was about myself. I saw so much of myself in Dederer and her struggles: wanting to be perfect, defining myself by what I do, attempting to atone for the sins of those who came before me and thinking if I work hard enough, I can right this ship and steer it straight. That constant striving — I felt it all the time, and it was killing me. 

Conversely, I also heard something else within myself: Stop trying so hard. And the more often I went to yoga, the more I could hear that voice within. Stop striving. Stop worrying. Just be. 

It took me weeks to finish Poser, as I worked through chapter by chapter, reading about Dederer’s experience and unpacking my own. And still I struggled. I wondered, If I stop striving, how will I achieve anything? If I stop worrying, what if nothing comes of my life? If I let it all go, what will be left? 

But the biggest question was, Why am I worried about this? 

I know that I can never conquer the yoga mountain. I can never do enough to have ever arrived. I can’t fix all the problems and have an incredible, pain-free life. And at the end of my days, no one will tally all the items I crossed off of my to-do list and say, Look at all she accomplished. Because none of that is truly important.

When I do yoga, I pay attention to myself — what my body feels like, what’s filling my heart and mind. Each time I come to the mat, I give my best, whatever that looks like on that particular day. Sometimes my best is very strong and adventurous; other times, it’s to be quiet and rest. I never practice yoga in order to be the best or because of some preconceived notion of what I should be doing. I put all of my shoulds away and accept where I am on that particular day. I don’t strive. I just am. 

At the end of class, when I am lying on the floor in shivasana, my mind is still and I’m fully engaged with my intention to be here now. Deep satisfaction comes in that moment; no matter what I was capable of or how hard I tried, I can rest and simply be. A few more deep breaths and I’m rolling up my mat, a bit lighter and easier as I head back out into the world. 

Photograph by Lindsay Crandall

Lindsay Crandall is a photographer and writer living in upstate New York, with her husband and two kids. More often than not, you’ll find her with a book or camera in her hand (and sometimes a glass of red wine). She is a collector of moments, a lover of light, a daydreamer, and a goal setter. Learn more about her on her website or follow her on Instagram.

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