The Shape of Stillness

A journey of finding health and home through yoga
Saige Roberts sitting for a cool mountainside morning meditation at D’Alijo Yoga Retreat Center. Photo by Saige Roberts

Sunlight curled around edges of blind-covered windows, barely illuminating my two cats nearby patiently awaiting breakfast. They would have to wait a little longer.

Shoulders relaxed, legs crossed, spine long, I closed my eyes and began my new morning routine in a quiet room in rural North Florida, inhaling and exhaling with intention.

A month earlier, I found myself sitting in a similar posture, perched on a boulder on the side of a mountain in northern Portugal.

Instead of two cats, my companions included more than 20 women of varying ages and stages of life, there to immerse ourselves in the study of yoga, and hopefully be able to teach it confidently with the skills and knowledge gained during the month-long intensive yoga teacher training at the serene D’Alijo Yoga Retreat Center.

Before then, I never imagined myself as a yoga teacher, or a teacher, period. A lifetime as an introvert with social anxiety kept me hiding behind the scenes of life and behind the screen of a computer or camera.

But in 2018, when my favorite online yoga teacher who I’d been practicing with for five years announced her teacher training plans for the following year, I knew I had to sign up.

Initially, Esther Ekhart’s early yoga videos on YouTube caught my attention when I was looking for relief from aches and pains (more on that later).

I continued following classes on her website because of her calm, introspective nature and her ability to make all aspects of yoga feel accessible to me.

Maybe it was because we were both women of roughly the same age, or because she seemed to be just as introverted as me, but whatever the case, her style clicked and inspired me to develop a consistent practice.

As I continued taking video classes from Esther and other like-minded teachers on her growing website, I became physically stronger and also strengthened my ability to hear what my heart wanted.

The more I followed my heart’s desires, the further I found myself down the path of yoga, yearning to share with others how it helped heal my anxious mind and aging body.

One thing I’ve discovered: Most paths toward anything truly meaningful and life changing look more like a roller coaster ride than a walk in the park.

They curve in and out, spiraling around an unknown center, until eventually, maybe, the purpose and destination become clear.

Spiraling movement, I also found out, is integral to all kinds of growth, especially involving matters of the heart.

Coming into Downward Facing Dog pose, Saige likes to keep her knees bent at first and extend long through the spine. Photo by Saige Roberts

A Walk Down My Path

I tend to live life in the slow lane. Even as a kid I’d beg my older siblings not to walk so fast so I could run to catch up, only to start dragging my feet again.

As an adult, life has conveniently obliged my need for non-speed on many occasions, serving up would-be catastrophes at a snail’s pace.

A melange of slow-speed car accidents in my early 20s comes to mind — no injuries or fatalities, thankfully, unless you count the bright teal VW Bug I eventually totaled.

This pattern of sluggish crescendoing misfortune continued in my late 30s, when a series of increasingly intense headaches, neck and jaw pain finally motivated me to go see a chiropractor.

The official diagnosis: upper crossed syndrome, aka, habitual poor posture.

Decades of hunching and working at a computer practically all day, with little to no active fitness, resulted in weak neck flexor and mid-back muscles along with tight, shortened upper back and chest muscles.

Although my chiropractor offered instructions for exercises and a set of resistance bands, I realized I needed more guidance and ultimately, a lifestyle change.

That’s when I took up yoga and began the ongoing process of moving toward health and regaining a sense of feeling at home in my own body.

Saige Roberts (left) with friends and fellow yoga trainees, take in the sunrise before their morning mountainside meditation. Photo by Saige Roberts

Learning to Teach

Back to the side of that mountain in Portugal. Why had I come so far to sit in silence with a group of relative strangers bright and oh so early on an unseasonably cold June morning? The night owl and the Florida girl in me both really wanted to know.

Looking down at the steep, rocky trail we had all traversed together to find our perfect meditating vistas reminded me how much the landscape of my life back home had changed since beginning my yoga journey.

Within the previous two years, I had shed two homes, a long-term relationship and secure employment but still held onto deep-seated fears, doubting my ability to connect with others, to be seen and heard, to walk firmly in my own footsteps and confidently take up space in the world.

Turns out, my intuition steered me to a safe space to unpack those fears, and I realized the deliberate choice to go there was necessary for a new perspective, a pause between where I came from and where I was headed.

Long days filled with lessons in yoga philosophy, anatomy and movement challenged my stamina and patience and rewarded me with new insights and understanding.

Esther’s gentle guidance and emphasis on self development, along with assistance from supporting teachers Tracey Uber Cook, Gilda Goharian and Mohsinah Underwood, helped to build a strong foundation for whatever comes next in life, as a teacher and, most importantly, as a functioning person in the world.

We went through several days in silence with the intention to turn our attention inward and connect with our own native guidance.

That was a piece of cake for this introvert, compared to the brief stints we had to teach in front of the class. For me, five minutes felt more like five years.

While leading the group through a simple sequence of warm-up exercises I got confused and froze halfway in, stumbling through the instructions for seated twists and boat pose. I held it together, mostly, while other students taught their segments, until after Savasana when no fewer than five people gathered around and showered me with hugs and warm words of encouragement.

They said I nailed the guided centering portion that sets the tone for the class and assured me I’d make a great teacher with my soothing voice and presence.

The instructors suggested it might help calm my nerves if I remembered to keep in mind the reason I was there — because of my love of yoga — and to keep my focus on helping share that passion with my students, rather than on how I was doing. The rest would all come in time.

Luckily for me we were given six months after the in-person intensive to complete course homework — enough time to not feel rushed but not too much time to lose momentum.

After that, I’ll officially graduate as a certified yoga teacher, more than capable of taking care of my own well-being.

With that, I hopefully can help others develop their own practice with tools that have helped me emerge from my shell to embody the strong, centered, confident woman I kept hidden from myself, and the world, for far too long.

Yoga teacher Esther Ekhart, who branded and launched EkhartYoga in 2012, leads the class through a playful warm up, twisting from side to side to wake up core muscles in a variation of Boat pose. Photo by Saige Roberts

A New Body of Knowledge

As it so often goes, the more I learned during the teacher training, the more I discovered how little awareness I actually have, particularly when it comes to anatomy.

Funny how much mystery remains contained within the very bodies we carry around with us everywhere we go.

For instance, did you know that the human heart is actually shaped like a double helix? (Yes, that double helix, akin to DNA.)

Its two sides rotate out from a central point and then fold inward on itself, origami style, like a pint-sized, ever-present shirt-pocket yogi, bound by looping appendages, intent on maintaining a meditative devotion to the sending and returning of vitality and life force.

When properly dissected, unwound and extended out, the anatomical heart form revealed is a simple, single flat band of muscle.

Stunned by this little nugget of knowledge dropped during anatomy class, I pondered how such a profound idea kept itself quiet for so long.

Apparently, the true nature of our cardiovascular superhero remained a well-kept secret from everyone until Spanish cardiologist Dr. Francisco Torrent-Guasp made the discovery in 1972, the year before I was born. He deciphered the so-called Gordian knot by discerning the direction of the predominant muscle fibers and digging in, literally, with his fingers.

Spirals throughout nature, as you probably know, are old news. From whirling atoms to swirling fingerprints, nautilus shells, pinecones and tornadoes … all the way up to solar systems and galaxies dancing through space.

The pattern winds its way around and through existence, not only in the material world but also in the more subtle realms of mind, emotion and spirit.

Though artists and scientists have historically studied the phenomenon to build pleasing and sturdy structures and understand physical nature, I can’t help but wonder: How can the wisdom of spirals lead us in the pursuit of more existential answers?

Can you map the golden ratio of the rush of a first kiss or the delight in smelling a sweet flower? Can you trace the Fibonacci sequence through a lifetime of epiphanies?

Dr. Torrent-Guasp shows us that the first step is to begin by observing the obvious … and remember to go with the grain.

Bringing hands together at the center of the chest signifies a return to the heart center, a balance and union of opposing forces. Photo by Saige Roberts

Coming Home — A Turning Point

Maybe not so obvious at first, the curving path of the roller coaster ride we might find ourselves on at one point or another eventually begins to reveal itself.

If you can’t find the brakes, how do you at least smoothly navigate through the ups and downs and ins-and-outs of life ever-changing? When circumstances feel out of control and nothing makes sense, how do you regain equilibrium?

Yoga says, observe that which doesn’t change. Notice the stillness between breaths, between heartbeats, beyond words — the unchanging spaciousness where intuition is born.

Find the stillness, and you’ll find that which holds the in and the out and the up and the down, the turning point of whatever  particular spiral you happen to be traversing at any given moment.

This is the center of balance, the apex of choice. This is coming home.

As our hearts continue to beat, nothing stays still for long. If your superpower is like mine, you may be able to slow down the chaos, but it never really stops.

At least not that I can tell. Instead of fighting momentum, you can learn to move with the spirals. The innate intelligence of the body knows what to do.

Besides the heart, which is playing its own special game of Twister, even our muscles wrap around bones, which — you guessed it — have a spiral shape, not unlike a corkscrew.

So when standing in a yoga pose or holding an arm balance, with firm placement and even weight distribution, you can turn your arms and legs and press your hands and feet down into the direction of the rotation to help support the posture, making it stronger and safer and easier to maintain.

Sounds like the perfect position to be in, if you ask me. And that, if you ask yoga, is the intention of Asana (yoga poses) … to prepare the body to sit in meditation and find the stillness that’s always there.

Remember the wisdom of the spiral next time you find yourself spinning out a little, either physically, emotionally or spiritually.

Take a deep, slow breath, release it fully and see what happens if you let go of trying to change the truth of the situation. Just go with it and notice how you feel.

Who knows, you might wind up in a fantastic faraway land surrounded by kind, supportive people with only your best interests at heart. I know I did.

And, hey, my editor tells me I’ve just taught my first class. I feel relieved. How about you? 

 

Saige Roberts is a professional photographer (saigeseadae.com) and art director for Emerald Coast Magazine’s publishing house, Rowland Publishing, Inc.

Categories: Wellness