Rewind to eight years ago. I’ve just returned from my first time travelling overseas. I’m buying new pants and my eyes are bloodshot from the continual hangover. Needless to say, I’m not doing so hot.
I had known from a young age that I would travel extensively. Number one on the list was India. This was decided many years before I knew anything about Indian culture, or even where to find it on a map. As it turns out, India would ignite the spark in me which yearned for self-discovery. India challenged me, encouraged me, and is where I trained to become a yoga teacher specializing in Hatha yoga philosophy, and meditation.
Immediately after my high school graduation, I embarked on a trip to New Zealand. I was desperate for a taste of freedom from the small town I grew up in. My brother was living in New Zealand at the time, and he (bless him) agreed to travel with me around the two islands. I was in the height of my partying days, and my poor brother watched with dismay from the sidelines.
During this time I was saturated in confusion and unhappiness, continually looking to the external world to satisfy a never-ending thirst for inner peace. I had spent the better part of my life spiraling in and out of depression. It was only during those late, intoxicated nights that I felt like I could raise a white flag high enough call a truce with my demons. The partying increased dramatically, and after some time it didn’t provide the escape I was looking for. For the first time in my life, I felt forced to face the heaviness that I had buried deep within me. I was unwilling, and I was afraid.
I once read somewhere that we seek means of comfort from any and every external method before trying meditation. After my return from travel, I tried everything to ‘get back to normal.’ Over consumed, then felt bad about it. Went on a fad diet and ‘fell off track,’ then felt bad about that. I visited numerous health care practitioners. Still didn’t feel better (or fit into my pants). I was bursting at the seams and desperately searching for a way to implement real change in my life.
One day, I was gifted a free pass to a local yoga studio. Feeling thrilled at the prospect of returning to my pre-travel pant size, I attended class the next day. In the studio, I felt uncomfortable in my skin and completely out of my element. Shyly, I set up my mat in the back corner, wallowing in shame and self-doubt. I wasn’t sure that this yoga thing was for me. But I kept going. After a year of practice (and saving with fervor), it was finally time to purchase my next plane ticket.
My life, for close to a decade, revolved around travel. I would work like a dog then pack up my things, sell my car, and head out on a plane. Nothing was better than an open-ended ticket. Excitedly, I booked my first flight to India. It was there in the hot deserts, jungle bungalows, and high in the Himalayas that I was introduced to aspects of yoga beyond asana, and aspects of myself beyond sadness, hurt, and anger.
Yoga led me down an unfamiliar path and introduced me to an unexpected (and dear) companion: meditation. Meditation comes in a number of different forms, from mindfulness to japa (also known as mantra meditation). Regular meditation practice is known to have positive effects on the body, both physiologically and emotionally.
One thing that isn’t always talked about however, is how damn hard it is to practice. It can be a scary and painful process, and requires diligence and discipline. A meditation practice gave me the opportunity to face the deepest, darkest aspects of myself. However many difficulties may come your way, it is essential to remember that your practice is a practice. Know that your best will look and feel different every day. Just committing to show up is enough. Meditation, in any and all its various forms, is training for life. When you practice, you aren’t drowning. You’re learning how to build your boat.
I never did find out whether I returned to my pre-travel pant size or not. One result of my practice was that I stopped checking the number on the scale. It just didn’t matter anymore. I felt healthy mentally and emotionally. That positivity translated to the way I view my body: alive and incredible. A temple, and a privilege.
There is a wellspring of resources available both online and here in Nanaimo to help start you on your practice. My advice is to shop around. Check out yoga studios in town with class times that fit into your schedule and get to know the instructors at those studios. Connecting with a teacher on a personal level is valuable for a yoga asana practice. A great teacher will have the ability to hold space for their students to be vulnerable and to ask questions, as well as give students an extra nudge when they are ready to push themselves.
One of my favourite meditation teachers is Tara Brach. She incorporates mindfulness, compassion, and loving kindness into her teachings. Check out her website <tarabrach.com> for dharma talks, podcasts, guided meditations, and step-by-step meditation instructions.
My personal practice has transformed over the years. However, for some time now my morning sit has looked the same: japa, to pranayama (manipulation of the breath and breath retention), to a meditation recommended for me by my teacher. When I was first diving into a meditation practice, I started with mindfulness. I have such a deep love for this practice, and still include it in my daily life.
Mindfulness is simply bringing an attentive awareness to day-to-day life. What does this look like during a formal (seated) practice? You can begin by sitting comfortably and choosing an anchor for your attention. I’ve heard of practitioners counting their breath (up to 10, then repeating). Some people like to focus the attention on the belly expanding and contracting. I personally like to bring my awareness to the tip
my nose. Here, I can consciously feel my breath entering and exiting my body. Once the anchor is set, make the commitment to sit for your chosen period of time (getting up half way during your practice to check your phone won’t be of much benefit).
Next, breathe. Sounds simple, right? Well, it is, and it isn’t. You’ll notice that almost immediately your mind will wander. It is important once you get here to remember that an avalanche of thoughts is normal, and actually, it’s constructive. It’s not about not thinking, it’s about witnessing—to be a witness means to be a passive observer, with no personal attachment to the internal narrative. In other words, instead of following your thoughts down the rabbit hole and creating scenarios or grocery lists, try to notice the thoughts as they come up. Noticing storylines, attachments, and aversions is the practice. Just noticing is enough. Pema Chödrön advises to mentally say ‘thinking’ every time you catch yourself going down that rabbit hole. Brach encourages practitioners to take a few seconds (or minutes) to try to not be aware. Give it a try now—for 10 seconds, try not being aware. What happens?
The wonderful part about mindfulness practice is its practicality. It’s not necessary to be sitting (formally) on your cushion to practice. Practice mindfulness when you’re cooking, driving, sitting through long lectures, or doing homework. Brach defines mindfulness as ‘a non-judgmental awareness,’ or becoming aware of the inner experience amidst the ever-changing external world.
When I teach mindfulness to my yoga students, I like to relate the practice to moments from my own personal history and experiences. I am a first-year university student, and I can say with absolute certainty that I would not be successfully continuing my path to higher education without my practice. The pressure put on students to achieve high grades as well as find a way to be financially secure is astronomical. Looking back on my younger pre-practice self, I know that if I had attempted tackling my program then, I would have buckled under the stress. My practice creates a sustainable platform that allows me to navigate through the post-secondary world; from time management, to successful studying, to knowing when it’s time to go to bed. My practice allows me the ability to come home to the wisdom of my body. The sensations explored during meditation become my internal guide. From this place of balance and calm, I am granted the capacity to wisely respond.
This semester, I’ve dodged sickness and late-night cramming. Something as simple as a few minutes every morning can translate into triumph and tranquility all semester long.
Consistency really pays off. With practice and patience, suddenly, life begins to change. Relationships improve and flourish. You write exams unaccompanied by stress (seriously). That narrative you’ve carried on your back for years becomes lighter and lighter. The truth is, meditation doesn’t change the world around you. It changes you and how you interact with and perceive the world. Relationships improve because your relationship with yourself improves. Exams come and go stress-free because you use the tools learnt during practice to cope. That narrative about yourself and others gets cracked wide open with understanding and compassion. Drowning in the hyper-active whirlpool of each day slows to a steady stream. Now, it is possible to float.
In the yogic tale of Sage Vasishtha and Sri Rama, it says that most always, we arrive on the mat when we are at the end of our rope. Distressed, despondent, and deflated. Accompanied with a familiar narrative, filled with shame and abuse. Right here, in the midst of all this turmoil, is the perfect place to start.