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Lead With Your Heart

How my yoga practice taught me to love myself

I found yoga about 13 years ago. My life was in turmoil, depression and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) were swallowing me, and I had just entered sobriety after an 11-year drinking career.

Prior to quitting, I was eating poorly, and I was drinking just about every day. To prove I was fine, I’d deny my hangover existed and run at least a couple of miles first thing every morning. I could take it; I was tough enough, I told myself. But really, I was punishing myself, and I was trying to hide and deny my alcoholism. If I could still run, I must be fine… just a little dehydrated and depressed.

I’m not sure how it happened. I don’t recall if I was interested or if someone suggested I go, but early in sobriety, I found a power yoga class at a studio about half an hour from my home. I began going every Sunday at 8 a.m., and it beat the crap out of me.

I was in fair shape, having kept up with running, but my muscles were not strong because of all the abuse I did to myself. And although I was sober, I still wasn’t eating a healthy balance, I still wasn’t staying hydrated, and I still wasn’t getting any exercise beyond my two mile daily runs. Holding downward dog or any warrior pose gave my calves, thighs, and shoulders a burn I didn’t know was possible.

In yoga, how we move on our mat, how we treat ourselves and the practice, is a direct reflection of how we live our lives off the mat.

Every week I’d go, and every week I’d leave drenched in sweat, as though I just jumped into a pool. The rest of the week I’d spend walking funny, recovering from sore muscles in places I never knew I had.

I was religious with it, obsessive and compulsive. I couldn’t miss a class, just like I couldn’t miss a run. I didn’t care if I was sick or tired or had something else to do. I had to go, and I had to push through.

No excuses!

No child’s pose for this chick. I never ate a thing before class, and I had a water bottle, but I wasn’t taking a break to drink it. That baby could wait to be chugged on the walk through the lot to my car.

In yoga, how we move on our mat, how we treat ourselves and the practice is a direct reflection of how we live our lives off the mat. That was certainly true for me. I was so disconnected from my body, so careless, so hateful towards it, that I ignored any pain I might be having.

And when the instructor gently, kindly, adjusted my form… I almost cried right there in the studio. It wasn’t from pain, not physical at least. It was from her kindness, her gentle touch. I was being so mean and hurtful toward myself, and here she was… this stranger, slowing me down and giving me kindness without any expectation in return.

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

One of the instructions she always gave was, lead with your heart. I always loved that, and I carry it with me, still, through my days and on my runs. It made me stand a little taller, and I could feel my heart opening little by little both on the mat and off. I could feel it opening towards others but also toward myself. That cold angry heart was beginning to soften. It was beginning to love.

Before yoga, I was able to love others. I was married after all, but my love was mostly distant, like an echo of what lied beneath my surface. And love toward myself, well, that was buried so deep under all of my anger, shame, and resentment that I wasn't able to connect with it at all.

My yoga mat was the first place I was truly able to consciously give myself love and kindness. It was the first place I was able to listen to my body and my heart and respect them.

…lead with your heart.

I spent years working my mat only once a week. Then after I gave birth to my son, my second child, I tore the cartilage in my hip. I was trying to lose weight quickly, not eating well of course, and someone told me sprints are better than long distance. So, I sprinted. And then I limped home barely able to walk.

I didn’t get back to yoga for a few years after that. I had the surgery and did the PT, but life was busy, and it’s always hard to get back on the horse once you’ve gotten off.

When I finally began again, though, I found that my practice was just as powerful as it ever was. It all came back quickly, and I discovered that I have even more strength than I had before.

This morning, I went to yoga… I rolled out my mat, placed my blocks, towel and a permission stone (for hands-on assistance), and I set an intention for my day’s practice. I attend a different school than the one I began with, but this one is an even better fit.

There’s a spiritual, meditative element to my practice that is enhanced here. And because I’ve grown so much over the years, I’ve learned and accepted important things about myself.

I still need to feel the pain in my muscles and walk out of the studio drenched in sweat, but I allow myself to fall out of a pose without judgment, I take a sip of water or rest in child’s pose when I need to, and I avoid taking classes taught by men because their energy isn’t a good fit for my practice.

I’ve learned through yoga to listen and to respect myself both on and off the mat. And I’ve learned through daily practice to lead with my heart.