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Lessons from the Yoga Mat

Five years ago, I bought a discounted pack of five hot yoga classes at the studio in my neighborhood. I wasn’t really in it for the yoga; I’d taken a handful of classes in college and it had never really “stuck.” I was in it for the heat. A 95-degree room sounded amazing in the midst of an especially cold Midwestern winter.

The yoga stuck, and has changed me in powerful if incremental ways. It has taught me mindfulness, increased my strength and flexibility, and given me hard lessons about humility. When I started, I couldn’t touch my toes or focus my attention on my breath to save my life. And now, after hundreds of classes and the successful completion of my studio’s training program, I am embarking on a new journey as a certified yoga teacher.

This vocation was entirely unforeseen, though I do have a tendency to end up at the front of the room—first the church sanctuary, then the writing workshop, and now the yoga studio. When I love something, I want to go deeper in my own experience and invite others to do the same.

In addition to joining the studio staff, I’ve been weaving yoga into my ministry at church, teaching Faith & Flow classes that integrate Christian spirituality with yoga practice. It’s incredibly meaningful work…and it all started with an impulse Groupon buy.

The classic definition of yoga is that it means “union”—of mind and body, of self and spirit. But the yoga teacher T. K. V. Desikachar offered this secondary interpretation: yoga is to “attain what was previously unattainable…there is something that we are today unable to do; when we find the means for bringing that desire into action, that step is yoga.”

I have this tendency to believe that I will never be able to accomplish The Thing—whatever The Thing happens to be at the moment. School assignments were always impossible, work projects insurmountable, parenting conundrums an exercise in futility. I for sure convinced myself, several times, that teacher training was too hard and that I would never be able to actually lead a class.

Yoga is teaching me that to touch my toes, I have to reach for them—and nonjudgmentally accept where my fingertips land. Class after class, week after week, until the day I finally made contact. On the other hand, just this morning in the midst of cueing a difficult pose, my teacher noted that if your arms aren’t long enough, you’ll never attain the full expression.

Truth bomb: no amount of yoga will make your arms grow longer. It is a lesson in acceptance that echoes the Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

I suspect I’ll always tremble a bit in the face of hard things; much as my arms aren’t going to grow, I’m unlikely to develop an optimistic disposition overnight. But my deep hope is that all the yoga I practice on the mat is making me stronger and bendier in body, mind, and spirit for all the difficult poses life asks of me off the mat.

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  1. Seana Turner

    I love yoga and have been practicing to 3 DVDs from Susan Bordenkircher for years. Hers is a Christian approach to yoga that I love. I think it has been one of the best decisions of my life to do this twice a week. A friend and I started together, and even though she has moved away, we have kept it up via Facetime. Best of luck to you as you start teaching!!

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Thank you so much, Seana! I’m so glad yoga has been a blessing for you, too. ?

  2. Tsh Oxenreider

    I really love this, Katherine! And since we already talked about this together, I can’t wait to share that conversation with everyone this Friday on the podcast…

    Since we’ve talked, I’ve re-taken up Pilates, and it’s been a joy remembering how much I love it. Our chat was part of the impetus to get me back on the mat! So, thanks. xoxo

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      That’s awesome, Tsh! There’s something so deeply gratifying about stretching and strengthening your body.

      Loved our chat!

    • Christine Bailey

      Tsh, I love pilates too and have been doing The Balanced Life for over 5 years. So great! This post encouraged me to add power yoga back in too, which I love so much for different reasons. Feels so good.

      • Tsh Oxenreider

        You’re in TBL too?!? Oh my goodness, we’ll have to talk about this…

  3. Julie

    I love this. “To touch my toes, I have to reach for them.” True in yoga, true in life. Thanks for the reminder! I am making time for yoga again this winter and it makes all the difference.

    • Katherine

      So glad you’re spending time on your mat, Julie! Thanks for reading and for your sweet comment.

  4. Christine Bailey

    Katherine, I LOVE this post and especially the parallel between accepting the place you’re at in yoga and the serenity prayer. You bring such a unique perspective! This has inspired me to add back in yoga along with the pilates I’ve been doing for awhile. Yoga makes me feel so strong while also realizing my limitations in a peaceful healthy way. Thank you!

    • Katheriney@

      That is such a perfect way to put it, Christine!

  5. Sarah Takehara

    Hi, Katherine. listened to your chat with Tsh on the podcast this morning and just followed up by reading this post. You’ve expressed your experience so beautifully! I dabbled in yoga throughout college but then developed a serious practice after getting married. I benefitted so much, that like you, I decided to become a certified yoga instructor. I received my certification back in 2010, (with a toddler and baby in the mix!) I’ve been teaching part-time ever since and I continue to be humbled and amazed by the profound benefits I receive from my practice as well as my students. I am prone to anxiety and my yoga practice has been one of the most effective tools to calm my mind and help ground me. Thank you for sharing your experience!

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Sarah! I’m so glad yoga has been a blessing to you. It really is such a powerful tool.

  6. ting elger

    I fell in love with yoga a couple of years ago! And I have to fight my inner critics & demons (this is not a Christian practice, it is hard, I have no discipline, plus my body is not perfect) HA! plus hearing my Christian circle comments (not biblical, im practicing Hinduism and new agey stuff) BUT love, love it- actually I became addicted to it. Even with breaking my foot and being on a scooter for more than six months I still persevered and continued practicing and it helped me tremendously with not just the physical but in terms of my emotional baggage too. I’m planning on pursuing to be a yoga teacher plus getting my Buti yoga certification this year!

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      So glad you’re telling those untruths to get behind you! I hope you love teacher training (and teaching!) as much as you love yoga.

  7. Nicki

    Yoga has been such an integral part of my spiritual practices as well! I now work for an organization called Ignatian Yoga – integrating the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Of Loyola with the traditions of yoga. It has been so rich bring the two together!

    • Katherine Willis Pershey

      I really want to go on one of their retreats, Nicki! I tried to sign up for their winter retreat this year and it was unsurprisingly full. I can’t even fully imagine the richness of integrating those two traditions! Thanks for your good work and maybe we’ll cross paths if I can nab a spot on a future event. 🙂

  8. Dawn

    I just read the post on anxiety and then clicked on this one. Both meshed so well together especially as I took a deep stretch yoga class this morning, first one I’ve been to in awhile. Focusing on breath work throughout the class was the longest stretch of mediation I’ve been able to achieve. My anxiety has been a lifelong companion, but in late 2017 I experienced a 3 hour long intermittent panic attack while driving home from a trip. The bottom line in my driving induced panic attacks is holding my breath. You would think as an oncology/hospice nurse, multiple years of therapy, a fairly healthy lifestyle and a deep faith practice that I would have the answers to resolve this. But just as I forget to breath when I drive, I forget that I have to practice being present to my body. Yoga came into my life after the death of my oldest son in a car accident 18 years ago. A few months into the class I found tears streaming down my face as my body finally felt safe, that it could release the tension of grief that wound through every muscle fiber in my body.
    Thanks for the blessing both of these posts brought to my heart.

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