The other night, I attended class at a hot yoga studio here in Chicago. When I entered the practice room, it was still dark and steamy from the previous class, which had just gotten out. As I rolled my mat out on the floor, a strange glistening appeared at the front edge of my mat. Upon closer inspection, I realized what it was: I had just rolled my Manduka straight into a huge puddle of someone else’s sweat.
This is not exactly the way I like to start my yoga practice. I’m sure the person who’d just sweated everywhere was now all blissed out, perhaps taking a nice shower in the locker room, or enjoying a cup of herbal tea in the lobby. Meanwhile, I was wiping up their pool of sweat with my towel, and cleaning off my mat, the front edge of which was now soaked with their bodily fluids.
In the past, if something like this had happened, I probably would have been very angry. I probably would have gone immediately to speak with the studio manager, and complained about their lack of attention to maintaining a clean and safe yoga environment. I would have suggested, very firmly, that they start to clean the floors between classes. And then I probably would have continued to stew about the whole thing through at least the first half of my practice, if not the entire way through. Afterwards, I probably would have started to think again about what had happened, never fully letting it go.
This time around, though, things were noticeably different. Sure, I was upset. But instead of stewing about it, I pretty quickly accepted that this was my present reality – i.e., my yoga mat is now sitting in a pool of someone else’s sweat – and I set out to do something about it. Within a few minutes, I had forgotten about it altogether.
Now I don’t want to read too much into this incident. I certainly can’t claim to have found enlightenment or anything profound like that. But what I can say is that any negative thoughts and emotions that arose were somehow not as intense as they sometimes can be for me. And they dissipated almost as quickly as they appeared.
I suspect that my daily meditation practice has something to do with this shift. For two months now, I’ve been practicing Zazen, or sitting meditation. I do this first thing in the morning, anywhere from 15-25 minutes. This is not a monumental feat, by any means, but a regular meditation practice needn’t be. In fact, the more accessible meditation is, the more likely you are to do it, and stick with it.
In seated meditation, you just sit. You don’t try to do anything with respect to your thoughts. You don’t chase away the flow of thoughts, nor do you chastise yourself for having thoughts in the middle of meditation. Instead, you just let them come and go, and you observe your breath. Eventually, the train of thoughts that’s continually running through the mind peters out. It will come back, in fits and spurts. But with practice, the volume is turned down a notch, so to speak, and you can just sit.
“I still look at even Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, with all of its postures, to be essentially Zen. I can hardly tell the difference.” – Richard Freeman
I’m no Zen master — far from it — but I appreciate the opportunity to practice Zen whenever it arises. So I am thankful to the person who took class before me and left a pool of sweat on the floor. Starting my practice on my hands and knees, cleaning up someone else’s sweat, was perhaps the most challenging part of the class for me. It certainly made me agitated, but instead of letting that agitation get to me, I was able to let it go relatively quickly.
My purpose in recounting this story is to reiterate my point about going beyond asana. I’ve been practicing asana for over ten years, and there’s perhaps no better stress reliever than a strong vinyasa flow class. But, in this respect, it’s not clear that asana practice is all that different from other forms of vigorous exercise, like running or weightlifting. A more complete yoga practice, however, has the potential to impact our lives in deeper, more long-lasting ways than just letting off some steam. A complete yoga practice can improve how we live, how we interact with others, and how we confront challenges beyond those presented to us on the yoga mat. For me, daily meditation is one important aspect of building a more well-rounded yoga practice.