Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Sports and Yoga

Sports and yoga make a beautiful pair, like Tom Brady and Giselle Bunchen, Tiger and the au pair, Laird Hamilton and Gabrielle Reece . . . you get the idea. My love affair with each was instant- the sports and yoga, that is. Although, for the record, my vote is for Laird and Gabby (photo right).

My parents brought me home from the hospital days before the Falmouth Road Race (now, one of the most celebrated races in the country). We lived along the route, so the excitement of the race was audible to our newly formed family of three through the open windows on that hot, August day. My mom still recalls cooing over me that I might run the race too, eventually, and, of course, I did, as though mom's suggestive whisper had been hardwired into my impressionable brain from the start. Similarly, I can navigate the rest of my life through a mental road map of my athletic endeavors. As a child, I recall, most clearly, summers spent swimming, sailing; racing through the woods behind our house; riding bikes within earshot, and leaping through the sprinkler. I lived for ballet classes during the school year and soon became enamored with organized sports. I played nearly all of them, excelled at some, and was even recruited to play a couple in college. I opted for field hockey, the sport at which I was less promising but had the most fun. After two years at the D-1 level, I "retired" my game jersey to the rafters (as white as ever, since it didn't see the field much). Right around this time, I started to get serious about my yoga practice.

In high school, I dabbled in yoga, attending classes in an old, converted fire station on the Cape. The youngest person in the class by decades, I probably would have felt awkward about being there had I not felt so comfortable with the actual yoga practice from the start. The style was nothing like the style that I practice now, gentle and slow as opposed to rigorous and flowing. Still, I loved it. Mid-way through college I discovered a yoga studio, which in the late 90s meant a group of people convened and paid a teacher to teach; we didn't actually have a "studio" in which to practice. The basement of a hair salon and a church function room proved to be our favorite spots. During my senior year, our teachers opened a real studio. That year, I also attended my first power yoga workshop, with Bryan Kest, and the exposure to a more vigorous, athletic style of practice opened up a brave, new world for me.

Let me be clear, though; what drew me to yoga from the beginning was the physical experience of it, not the results it could achieve. At the time, it was very gauche for teachers or students to practice yoga or promote its benefits from a strictly superficial sense. Today, the landscape is different; yoga has become increasingly westernized, making references to toning muscles or burning calories more acceptable. I'm not criticizing or downplaying the physical benefits of yoga, but I do want to underscore that if we practice yoga in order to look good in our jeans, then we aren't actually doing yoga. We might get a good workout, but yoga requires and encourages a working inward.

What made my heart sing, then, and still does, now, is the ability to be completely absorbed in an activity that demonstrates your potential to the universe . . . not unlike sports. True, Tiger likes to win. He embraces the results of his efforts- the green jackets, the crystal trophies, the monstrous endorsement deals- but he doesn't practice golf the way he does (the way he has his entire life) because of those quantifiable results. Tiger is a yogi; most athletes are. I'm not referring to whether they actually do yoga, although that is the case with many athletes today; I'm drawing the parallel between yoga and meditation and what the sport's world might call "being in the zone."

This ability enables Big Papi to be one of the biggest clutch hitters of all time; it's the difference between Kevin Garnett being a basketball player and a basketball event to watch and, likely, why Venus and Serena became tennis sensations while playing on ragged courts in a ragged neighborhood in Compton. Sure, all of these people are exceptionally gifted, genetically blessed, etc., but they've also taken their knocks. Still, they set an intention to be focused on a certain path, and they have refused to relinquish it, not in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two strikes, not with a city's expectations on their shoulders, not with crime and criticism calling out to them, literally, from behind the fence that enclosed their beat-up, inner-city court.

This path is comprised of millions of "present moments," flashes in time in which a person is wholly awake and engaged in only what is happening here and now. It's a dedication to channeling one's energy into a singular task. If you can catch an athlete in this zone or experience it for yourself, while on your mat or running along a country road or sinking your own impossible putt, you'll feel the meditation in it. You'll witness the triumph of the mind over an otherwise daunting situation, and this triumph won't occur because the mind talked anyone through the challenge or figured out how to meditate. The mind will be observing too, and it will also find that basket, run, drive, touchdown, or pitch breathtakingly beautiful.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So beautifully written Rebecca. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
I am trying to live in the moment and "be present" more often. On the way, I find that I keep reminding "myself" to get out of the way.