The Sacred Flow of Yoga

It sounded out-of-this-world strange when the instructor prompted the class to lay on our backs with our limbs spread out, eyes closed, and to focus on our breath.

I wanted to spring open my eyes and look around the room, since I wondered if everyone else was following her cues. But I restrained that urge and did as I was told, trying to not squirm, or wonder how ridiculous I looked lying on my mat, attempting to relax the muscles throughout my body.

This was my first experience with a hot yoga Bikram class in 2012. My friend had suggested that I give the class I try, so three of us went and rolled out our mats in the last row of a busy class. I don't remember much else from that class, which must have been a good sign since five years later, I've stuck with hot yoga and can't imagine not having it in my life.

Before I started seriously and consistently working out from the age of 21, my fitness endeavors were sporadic. During summer I would go for long bike rides, walk, and play tennis; my winter fitness pursuits weren't as prevalent. I remember failing physical education twice in seventh grade because the teacher said I had poor flexibility, endurance, and strength. Reflecting back on my middle school years, I felt as though I was not grounded with inhabiting my body. I felt detached mentally and spiritually from my physical self: I didn't understand all of its components or the changes I was going through during puberty; I viewed my body as a machine which didn't look or work the same way as other girls who were athletic and confident; and I didn't love my body or appreciate its spiritual nature as a gift from God. It just...was and nothing more.

While I started seriously going to the gym from my early twenties and quickly achieved a higher level of physical fitness, something was still missing. And I wouldn't really know what this was until I attended my first yoga class.

Yoga has helped tremendously with integrating my physical, mental and spiritual parts into a whole. I've journeyed from not understanding my body and what it was capable of (and thinking I wasn't endowed with "fitness genes") to being thankfully strongly, more flexible, and mindful now than I've ever been. And this supersedes solely my physical self. While I can now do one-legged push-ups during the flow sequence, side planks with an elevated top leg, and hold balancing poses with relative ease, I'm mostly grateful for the mental and spiritual benefits I've accrued. My mind is quiet during classes, either focused on my body moving through space or my breath when poses and sequences become challenging. I've gained greater awareness of when to push forward and when to be self-compassionate and pull back. I've learned to laugh at myself when I fall out of poses before trying again, and smiling more during the pose. I've learned that I have no need to look at what anyone else is doing on their mat since it has no implication on the journey I'm taking on mine. I've learned that you can be graceful and stand tall even after you've spent so much of your life thinking that you're not capable or worthy of this. I've learned that deep and diaphragmatic breathing calms racing minds and tight muscles, as well as the de-activating the sympathetic nervous system during fight or flight responses.

I can't ever recall living as a fully whole person until I started yoga. I blame trauma for this. Practicing spiritually-inclined yoga has given me the ability to embrace and be compassionate towards parts of my body that have harbored confusion, stress, and tightness for years. There's no timeline for healing the impacts of trauma, given that it is stored deeply within channels of our body in a way that our brain cannot comprehend. Yoga has given me the gift of feeling as though this tall and lanky body of mine is graceful, strong and resilient. It keeps me present during hip opening poses that are deeply uncomfortable, as I breathe and wait for these muscles to relax and stretch out on their own accord. It has given me the confidence to modify poses that everyone else is able to do in their original format. Yoga has given me the gift of starting to look at my body with curiosity and in a "let's try this out" sort of way rather than "I can't do that." Yoga has taught me that no two bodies are the same - physically or metaphysically.

I am so grateful for having been led to yoga and I continue to try and take what I'm learning on my mat into life outside of the studio - and even more importantly, onto my prayer mat. Yoga is incredibly spiritual for many reasons - not only with the mindfulness it can impart, but in the way that yogis themselves channel spirituality in their own individual ways. I often say prayers and do Dhikr (invocations) when I'm in the studio prior to the beginning of class. I've also found myself doing invocations when I find my mind wandering or when I'm in a pose that is more challenging or uncomfortable. And I think that fostering a strong sense of self-love has brought me closer to God since every and all creation is blessed and has been created in God's perfect image.

I am exactly where and how I am supposed to be in this very moment - the rest, I leave up to God.

It's been five years of benefitting from yoga, and the lessons don't stop. After contemplating on this for a while, I've decided to enroll in teacher training this summer for the style of yoga I resonate with the most: Baptiste Vinyasa Flow (or "power yoga," as it's sometimes called). I'm taking this step for myself first, and hopefully to share with others once I'm certified. My goals are to lead spiritually-focused yoga classes within our community, and also given the promising body of research in this area, to lead trauma-sensitive yoga classes. As I continue to personally experience, yoga can play a significant role in healing from trauma, in combination with more "conventional" modalities such as therapy/counseling.

For anyone looking to learn more about the links between yoga and Islamic spirituality, the following links may be a good place to start.

Situating Sufism and Yoga

Yoga Sutras: Commentary by a Modern Mystic

Salat: The Highest Form of Yoga?

I'd like to acknowledge my friends Hasan Awan and Asif Dhar for starting this conversation on Facebook today, inspiring this blog post, and for sharing these resources.

I truly hope that everyone reading this will try yoga - and I don't mean just one class (!). And I pray that you experience what I do each time I roll out my mat and experience meditation through movement.

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