I came to my mat in February of 2009 as a struggling, unhappy college sophomore. I was depressed, suffering anxiety and my emotions ruled my life. I knew very little about yoga, the main attraction for me being some promise of tranquility with a side of muscle tone.
My first class was painfully awkward, and it showed. I naively kept my socks and sneakers on until the instructor gently informed me yoga is practiced barefoot, then stumbled around my cheap rubber mat for an hour. I even caught the instructor chuckle to herself when I fell out of Warrior II. Yes, fell…as in, onto the floor. As I cursed all warrior poses, my untamable breathing and the tanned, sinewy rubber band practicing on the mat next to me, I was completely unaware of the little seed of light burrowing into my mind.
During my second visit to the yoga studio, something in me shifted. The teacher instructed everyone to place one hand over their heart and the other on their abdomen during the opening meditation. As I sat on my mat feeling the long, deep breaths flow in and out of my body and my heartbeat under my palm, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of safety and comfort. I had never before paid such close attention to the two biggest reasons I am alive. Its grounding effect was instantaneous, and grounded, at that time, was something I rarely felt. At that moment, something clicked and yoga became my new best friend.
While it took time for my muscles to stop screaming during every forward fold and lunge, I kept coming back to my mat. Maybe it was the soothing music, the candles, the incense, or the sweaty, cleansing workout. Perhaps it was that a challenging class gave my mind something other than my self-esteem to gnaw on for an hour and a half. Regardless of the exact reason, yoga fostered a focused sense of introspection that I never experienced before and drew me to the practice like a moth to a flame. As I deepened my practice I delved farther into my psyche, clearing dark cobwebs from my mental space, disrupting harmful and unneeded thought patterns and very often sprinkling my mat with tears.
Any problem I couldn’t solve was fixed on my mat. When I was scared or hurting, I tucked myself into double eagle or leaned into gomukhasana. As I learned to steady my breath, my thoughts steadied in return. When I achieved balance in bakasana or headstand, my life outside the yoga studio equalized. As my body became more flexible, my mind relinquished the control it tried to exert over every situation. Each transformation on the mat was met with a congruent change off of it and I slowly morphed into a different person.
Throughout the development of my practice, my passion for yoga and meditation quickly merged with my interests in science. What was once a form of personal therapy became firmly rooted in my academic and work live. The focus of my senior capstone project at Northeastern University on mind-body medicine and I also spent the first six months of 2013 as a research intern at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. In August, I entered into Georgetown University’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine program, where I now study physiology and mind-body medicine.
The circumstances that led me to roll out a yoga mat for the first time were dark and are not easy to recount. However, I have tremendous gratitude for those lows; without them, I never would have found yoga in my search for a way out and may not have returned to mental and emotional health as quickly or robustly. Consequently, I never would have developed my academic interests and career aspirations into what they are now. By continuing to practice, I keep my head and my heart on an even keel. When things get hairy, which they still sometimes do, I roll out my mat. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” And learn to surf I did.