I was recently asked by one of my new yoga employers to describe my “yoga journey.” It was the type of email that I read, and then just sat staring at, fingers hovering over my keys, pinkie flicking expectantly like the twitch of a tired eye. My yoga journey? I didn’t realize I had one. My relationship to yoga is part of my relationship to my fitness. That’s related to my health. My health is the life force of my body. My body is vessel for my mind, creating the whole being that cradles my soul. To isolate yoga is like isolating a leaf from its tree trunk. What will drink the water? What will take the sun? In fact, there’s the matter of the sun and water themselves. A tree is a reflection of and dependent upon its surroundings. In the wrong soil, a tree will not grow.
This piece is my answer to the “yoga journey” question. My yoga journey is that of a young woman growing up. The story is of a physical being that changes as it interacts with the world. A body that responds to a mind that responds to limitless stimuli. Recognizing its own limitations, and the knowledge of others, this being seeks aid. My yoga journey is a story of ages, stages, and sages.
Stage 1: The Bullet
With little effort I am able to recall my first soccer game. I remember running on a breakaway. I can feel the soft thud of leather-polyester blend on my foot. My friend, a boy named Stuart, ran parallel to me, calling “Pass! Pass!” Little wisps of hair caught my eyelashes. My arms swung, propelling me. I kicked the ball. I’ve not got the faintest clue if Stuart received it. But I know my cheeks bunched in a smile.
Until the age of about 13 my physical and emotional selves were blissfully ignorant to their blissful ignorance to people’s comments about my “long legs” and the fact that my body might be somehow separated from my mind and health. I ran, kicked, jumped, ate, played, and loved without inhibition. My mother learned how to cope with her energetically reckless firstborn. My dad was my sage, a fisherman, soccer enthusiast, and ski-instructor. He named me “Bullet” because of the way my blue helmet head bobbed on skis down the mountain behind him. In summer I rollerbladed endlessly with my first friend-and-sage, Jenny Lucas. We fuelled with Dr. Pepper and raw cookie dough. Stretching and boys? Who had time?!
Sometimes, at night, I found a little hill in the greenbelt that wound its way through suburbia. I sat there with my black dog, stretching my feet in front of me, feeling the soft cement under my legs. Looking back, I think those dusky hours were my first savasana.
Stage 2: Delighted Detachment
It was around the age of 13 that I first conceptualized my body as separate from my soul. I will never forget the moment. I was in the shower listening to Destiny’s Child. It was in the home of my Auntie Val, a sage to me then and now (in memoriam). I glanced down at the warm water running over my body and for the first time saw curves. The water dropped from elevated sections of body like little rivers over cliff ledges. Since when was the possible? That’s when I learned to look at my body.
Throughout High School I explored my physical/ spiritual/ emotional connections with delighted detachment. I am truly blessed to be of sound mind, body, and spirit, so my American high school experience presented unlimited opportunities. Despite pimples and a big nose, my womanly features deemed me “hot.” At the same time I also explored spirituality, attending different religious gatherings with my family and journaling. Of course, I was forever an athlete, except athletics were social and stress-reducing activities. Friend-sage Jen Davis and I spent cross country practice flirting with boys or secretly eating chips and queso at her house, which was conveniently located on most of our running trails. As egotistical as all high schoolers are, I didn’t recognize sages of that time: Coach Selle, my cross country coach who expressed such patience, knowing my chattering mouth inhibited what would surely have been a stellar running career. Staci Stech, my English teacher with a cool demeanor and love for written words who demonstrated spiritual writing. My boyfriends, whose love and curiosity taught me the meaning of deeper relationships.
It was during this stage that I also witnessed my first yogi. I cannot recall where, I think probably the local “rec center.” I just remember seeing this man in loose, thin, lungi-style brown trousers. He was in happy baby position. So, I saw everything he used to make his baby happy. I remember feeling totally repulsed. I swore I would never do yoga.
Stage 3: Foundations
I went through intense psychoanalytical changes from the ages of 17-22. I see this stage as a slow-growth process of foundation building that dictates the rest of my life. While I became sexy, strong, and bountiful, I slowly developed into a pawn of social pressures that formulated negative personal habits. I loved my body and it loved me back. I was athletic, smart enough to study, excitable, and feminine. And yet I remember one scene, at the age of 17. My friends and I had come back from a late party and were eating bags of chips. One friend complained about her belly; another her butt. We all acknowledged that I had “the best body” and it was “because I worked out.” Comments like these incited my doing short exercise videos in my room after school, before dinner. This was the first sign of little rules and judgments that would come to rule my life and the false “sages” that my unwitting friends, family, and greater society would become.
And yet my first three years of college were magical. I studied, partied, ate, performed, and kissed to my heart’s desire. Very special friends became sages, people I was honored to know. Certain professors pushed me toward my best skills, challenging and empowering me. I discovered a love of group fitness, aerobics and, surprisingly, yoga. “Why do you like yoga if you’re so hyper all the time?” people asked. “You never stop moving.” Yoga just felt right.
A deep yogi instinct sent me to India to study-abroad. Yoga there was like jumping into the Mediterranean Sea on one of its colder beaches. For five months I practiced at least 3 times a week with a single teacher in an inner-city ashram. After a perfect puja and dripping bamboo canopies my slight yoga instructor forced my toes over my head, barked military-style Sanskrit at me, and guided me through the most ethereal whole-body connections I have ever experienced. At the end of classes I felt everything. One time, sexier than Lakshmi. Another, angrier than Kali. Sillier than Ganesh. More tired than The Buddha, under his tree.
I just wasn’t the same when I came back from India. It was like watching the sunset over a humid sea. Everything is there: pink, yellow, blue, grey. But it hovers behind a fuzzy shadow, its edges a little less crisp than science intended them to be. My sun was there, bright and beautiful, but lacking sincerity. In college the world began to tell me that I was physically “perfect.” To become that way I must be taking great care. To others, my God-given love of vegetables became “healthy eating.” My adoration of exercise became “staying fit.” “What exercises do you do to get legs like that?” These insinuations planted a deep guilt and doubt within me. Would cookies make me fat? Other people say they will… The very “should” became an internal compass. Fears about losing my body became rules about what exercises I should do. Food became calories that should be eaten, based on calories that should be “burned.”
Stage 4: Doing
And that’s how I became a human doing instead of a human being. By my final year in college I was a robot. Exercise, work, intern, homework, sleep, repeat. My sages weren’t real. They were the people on the cover of magazines. They were CEO’s whose 10-question interviews I read online. They were my friends who were as good at “faking it” as I was. My biggest sage was the impossible Emily I strived to become.
Any my yoga...what a shame. I only did yoga as a complement to a full day of exercise or on days when my body was too malnourished for Body Combat and I too guilty to relax. I was perpetually unhappy with my yoga classes, going into them with the expectation that I would experience a divine spiritual appeal that would make the class “worth it.” I blamed the teacher for leading to class poorly and usually thought they were too easy. I nearly always left for savasana. And when I did stay to lay, I didn’t pray. In fact, I often cried.
I fed myself on comments like, “How do you stay so thin?” and, “Are you a rock climber? The muscles in your arms are so developed”! and, “Why don’t you just eat a burger?” It’s a curious thing in American society that you can’t comment on an obese body but are at liberty to speak of a thin one. The world thought thin was better than fat. The thinnest were the best. I’m ashamed to type that sentence. But, it was my truth. I was a human doing, not a human being.
Stage 5: Planting
Enter one of the greatest sages of my life, Kim Merkel. She was a fitness instructor who tracked down my mother’s contact details. Kim, my mother, and most everyone else recognized my sickly stage. Kim and I first connected when I was the wildest aerobic attendee at her classes. People told us we acted alike. She offered my advice about getting certified in Group Fitness. She saw the irony in the fact that I was overexcericsing at the same time I was leading others to find their optimum fitness. Kim calling my mother was the last straw. I finally allowed me mother to be my sage when she walked me to the Eating Recovery Center.
After regaining the necessary weight, I was allowed to practice yoga. Oh, the sages…I was coaxed and cooed by teachers like Susanne and Carrie Varela. I smiled walking into the studio and smiled walking out. I felt small movements in my muscles. I made friends with other yogis. I was shy in my body. No one seemed to care. Although my period never returned, a physical and spiritual repair commenced. Through yoga and love, I grew into my current stage.
Stage 6: Being
In this stage, every day is a journey of connecting my being with my doing. I’m a tree that recognizes the soil it needs to thrive, although this recognition doesn’t make the soil easier to farm. Roots run deep. I hope one day I can have a conversation about “healthy eating” again without feeling resentful. I hope I don’t feel the need to defend myself for eating “unhealthy.” I hope that I won’t feel like I “should” exercise. However, I’m proud to write these sentences because they show my intention. So what if I can’t touch the ground. At least I am bending my way toward it, know what color it is, and am enjoying the stretch anyway.
Today my yoga practice and instruction are founded on this “journey.” I ask myself what my sages would do and try to make them proud, fictive observers and muses. I look at my yogis knowing that I cannot fathom what brings them to their mats. I stay true to myself as an instructor, knowing that there’s not much else I can do to make it “right.” When the yogi is ready, I will be there. Most importantly, I teach yoga because it helps me. It helps me feel graceful, energetic, strong, sexy, grounded, and confidant, the way I was born to feel. It shows me the unification between mind, body, and, soul. It’s me doing human being.
Emily Stewart is an insatiably curious merrymaker and busy-body.
Everything on this website is Copyright © 2017 by Emily E. Stewart, Sole Trader. All rights reserved.
Special thanks to Paul K. Porter, who's pictures appear most frequently on the site, for being the best yoga retreat photographer EVER.