On The Mat And In the World: The Practice of Appreciation (Guest Post)

Scene: Santa Barbara City College. I’m nineteen, a part-time student, a full-time retail employee at Anthropologie, sitting in my night class: Cultural Anthropology. It’s the end of spring semester, and it stays light outside almost until the class ends at 9:00. Tonight: a guest speaker, an anthropology PhD student writing her dissertation on the use of psychedelic drugs in native cultures. She’s also a yoga teacher—she wears her long dark hair in two braids and moves her rather round body with a grace and presence I’m not used to. At the end of class, she extends the offer of a free yoga class, for anyone interested.

I have no idea why I felt none of the usual reticence I generally experience when trying a new activity that involves being in a room with other people. Maybe because I had no idea what to expect. But the next week I showed up at the studio—high-ceilinged, very white, flooded with natural light—and took my first yoga class.

That afternoon as I unrolled my mat, I was very close to the end of my tenure in Santa Barbara, though I didn’t it know it yet. I didn’t know, as I did my first downward dog, how very close I was to either losing my mind or changing my life completely. I didn’t know when I returned to more classes, and learned to watch my breathing, to fall completely into Savasana, how very much I needed something in my life to change. But I did know, four months later, when I first did crow pose in an impromptu session in the living room of the woman who would become the next girlfriend of my then-boyfriend, that I was leaving.  My car was already packed and waiting for me to drive away.

I wish I could say that yoga informed my decision to leave a town and a situation that didn’t feed my soul. I wish I could say I became a devoted yoga student from then on. But neither is true: my decision to leave Santa Barbara was fueled by the same youthful courage that had brought me there, and my yoga practice was, for a long time, rather sporadic.

I’m thirty-two now—and I have been practicing yoga on and off since that first time in Santa Barbara. I’ve practiced in the basement of the house I grew up in, studios in three of the five boroughs of New York City, the 8 x 10 dorm room I called home on 8th Street one block north of Washington Square Park (an old hotel where Jack Kerouac once lived), at Kripalu in the Berkshires, in hotel rooms on the East and West Coast, and mainly in the last few years in my home in Northampton and a number of the studios this idyllic New England town offers, often with Courtney as my teacher.

My life is much, much different today than it was twelve years ago. I live in my own skin these days—not the skin I thought I was expected to live in. I’ve got a supportive (female) partner and five fat cats. I write every day. I embrace simple living, find beauty everywhere I look, and make creativity a priority. I founded and run a literary magazine, Cactus Heart.

And I have a yoga practice.

For me, doing yoga is about making the time and space to drop into my body. To see where my strength lies, harness it and take it out into the world. Down dog and crow continue to be two of my favorite poses: down dog because it is active and passive, playful and restorative; crow because it’s fearless and it reminds me that I am my own net—every time I leap, I am there to catch myself.

I also maintain a yoga practice because it’s a fail-proof way to find where I am weak, and to give myself time to study and understand those weaknesses. I have a chronically sensitive stomach—so is it no big surprise that I find twisting poses really tough, and that exposing my sides in poses like wild thing and side crow terrifies me? Still, I lean into those poses, I try to find that point between effort and effortlessness that lets me explore the reasons for my weaknesses.

Weaknesses are good teachers, if you learn to listen to and honor them.

But probably most importantly, I practice yoga now as an inspiration and extension of what I’ve come to see as my life-long practice: seeing, appreciating, and revering beauty, every single day.

It’s an act of courage to tip your feet off the mat and into crow pose, just as it’s an act of courage to go out into this messed up world and find beauty in a single leaf or in the face of a black kitten living behind a dumpster in a ravaged city. As a creative being, there is no practice more important to me than finding beauty wherever I may be privileged to look.


Sara Rauch blogs at simple.creative.life where she melds advice for creative spirits, thoughts on living the simple life and finding beauty, photography, and the occasional vegetarian recipe. She is also the editor of Cactus Heart Literary Magazine.

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