On the Mat – Life lessons in 30 days of yoga

0023This spring, my friend Michelle and I decided to do yoga for 30 consecutive days. Our motivation: she, a veteran yoga instructor, was opening her own studio and wanted to teach in her new space; I wished to be in better shape before my 40th birthday. So, we set the day and time to begin, Saturday, June 25, 2011, 6:30 a.m.

Painfully aware

The week before our adventure was to start, I received difficult news: my invincible, effervescent mother, who has been unrelentingly fighting colon cancer since 2007, was partially paralyzed and barely functioning. I was scheduled to move her to Rochester from her home in Indiana over July 4th, but I feared she wouldn’t make it or, worse, wouldn’t live the summer. The thought of doing yoga for 30 days suddenly felt burdensome. So, I told Michelle I couldn’t do it, thinking we’d try later when life wasn’t so painful.

    Lovingly, but firmly, she refused my cancellation. She saw, though I didn’t, that my anguished thoughts for my mother were overwhelming my life and endangering my health. She told me she loved me and begged me to let her help. So, I hung up the phone and went to her studio, Yoga Mitra (which aptly means “united in friendship”), and sat on the mat for the first time. By the end of the day, I was aware that my grief was hurting not only me, but my loved ones as well (and wasn’t helping my mother).

Breathing in life at the moment

This awareness was the first step in letting go of my worries, but being aware of how oppressive and diverting thoughts can be was not enough. I needed to know how to stop dwelling on them and “live in the moment.” Welcome focused breathing.

    The next day, as we were folded in child’s pose, Michelle explained the importance of breathing in yoga. My goal was to take slow, controlled, deep breaths in and out, thinking of nothing but breathing. For a worry-wart like me it seemed impossible. For days, my breathing was floppy and erratic. It was too fast or was coming in when it was supposed to be going out. Before I could finish three breaths, my mind had wandered elsewhere: to the U-Haul I needed to move my mother; how Michelle and Linda—a friend who joined us on day two—sounded asleep in Downward-facing Dog (their breath was so deep and steady) while I sounded like Darth Vader…etc. But there was one thing that forced me to control my breathing: yoga’s surprising physical intensity.

Strengthening the warrior

When I agreed to do 30 days of yoga, I was skeptical that it would build muscle. As I
struggled to move my aching limbs on day three, eight, 13, 20…I knew I had been very wrong. With just two of us in class, Michelle could customize our practice, introducing daily challenges to “strengthen our inner warrior:” sinking an inch deeper into Crescent lunge and holding a few seconds longer; presenting balance poses like Crow.

    For the first few weeks, it was all impossibly hard, but then one day, as Linda said, “it suddenly felt different. I was surprised at what I could do.” By the time we got to Savasana (a.k.a corpse pose), my body was so exhausted there was no energy left to fret.

    After 30 days, I’ve gotten better at breathing and keeping my thoughts in check. Mom’s condition is still serious, as is the accompanying stress, but I try to accept every day for what it is and to live for the moments we have now instead of worrying when they might end. I went down a dress-size and feel stronger (I don’t fall over in poses as often), but I am far from perfect at any of it…which is oaky because, as Michelle said that second day, “mindfulness and yoga are not to be perfected, only practiced every day for the rest of your life.”

Marlene Petersen is a Rochester writer who is thankful for the wisdom of friends and family and everyone at Mayo who is helping her mom move again.