In the spring of 2013, I had the honor of teaching in White Plains, New York, being hosted by the grand matriarch of modern yoga herself, Tao Porchon-Lynch, as part of her annual yoga teacher training program. At 97 years of age this amazing woman is as active and inspiring as ever, whether she is traveling the world and teaching master classes in locations like Moscow and France, or simply driving herself around town in her tiny blue and silver Smart Car. Tao Porchon-Lynch is a living testament to the power of a life-long yoga practice, and she is a personal hero to me.
We all need people like Tao. We need people who live their lives heroically, people who defy the odds and somehow thrive in the face of the extraordinary challenges that each and every one of us face just by virtue of being alive.
A few years ago I came across a video of another such person that eventually went on to become viral. I’m sure you’ve seen it. It is about a man named Arthur Boorman who, as a wounded war veteran, documented his personal journey of self-healing. Few videos have had such a profound effect on as many people, and watching him go from hobbling about on crutches in the beginning of the video to sprinting full speed by the end is nothing short of breathtaking. Through his heroic efforts to heal himself, he has become an inspiration to countless other people who face enormous challenges in their own lives.
But a hero isn’t just someone who does amazing things. It’s not just the people who defy the norm by thriving at age 94, or healing themselves against enormous odds. A hero can be the average, ordinary person who finds within themselves the courage to struggle against the challenges they face every time they step to their yoga mat to practice.
Over my years of teaching yoga I have had the honor of knowing many yoga practitioners. I have never met a single one that I didn’t feel had enormous odds stacked against them. Yoga is not easy and it’s not meant to be. To successfully walk the path of yoga is to pit yourself against powerful forces pulling on both your physical body and your emotional and mental well-being. Trying to maintain the highest level of physical health is a life-long battle we will all eventually lose. Your physical body is not meant to last forever, and it would be a mistake to interpret the goal of your yoga practice to be solely lengthening your life.
Yoga exists not for your physical body, but to create a forum for you to shine your spirit, to forge skills that can allow for you to thrive in your life as you live it off the mat. Yoga creates for you a path and asks one thing, that you practice heroically. That you disregard the odds that you may never press to handstand or put your foot behind your head, but that you seek out the best personal expression of who you can be, and you move closer to it with each and every breath, every day of your life.
Facing the mat daily as part of your own personal hero’s journey can be at times difficult, and at times, absolute bliss. I think along the way as each of us encounter the practice we all evolve certain heroic qualities in response to the lessons we inevitably learn on the mat:
Lesson #1: Integrity
You can know exactly what you need to do to get the most out of your yoga practice, but if you don’t actually do it, nothing happens.
Be willing to make commitments to yourself and then actually stick to them. Maybe you have decided to practice everyday this week as soon as you wake up, or you have promised yourself that you are going to stop eating carbs after lunch.
Don’t wait. Make a commitment and hold yourself to it. It might take a hero’s strength to drag yourself out of bed 30 minutes early, or to step away from the brownies your co-worker brings, but you have to honor the commitments you have made to yourself f you wish to succeed in your practice.
Lesson #2: Non-Violence
Practicing yoga postures will teach you very quickly that an aggressive attitude will only lead to an injury. Some people come to the practice having already learned this lesson somewhere else, some people learn it on the mat, but regardless, non-violence is impotent unless you make it an integral part of the way you live your life.
It takes a hero’s effort to lead a life of non-violence in such a violent society as ours. It seems that aggression is almost rewarded in modern life. Yoga asks that you practice this skill daily, first on yourself as you encounter the challenges you face on the mat, and then eventually with every being you encounter beyond.
Lesson #3: Surrender
Your yoga practice won’t always make sense. It’s not linear, it’s not logical. Since the mind and body are the same, the practice really reflects enormously complex processes of transformation far beyond that which anyone understands (regardless of what they may claim).
You must learn to surrender to whatever happens, whenever it decides to happen. Surrender is rarely a skill that a yoga practitioner learns in daily life. Everything screams that it’s up to us to make change happen, we’re in control! What if we’re not? What if everything is exactly as it should be and there’s nothing you need to do but breath?
It might take a hero’s courage to relax and let go, but give it a try. Believe it or not, the quickest way forward in your practice is stop expecting, stop anticipating, stop trying to achieve and just let it happen.
Lesson #4: Gratitude
Whatever happens, be grateful for it. For all your best efforts, however they are rewarded, give thanks. It’s an important part of creating a life worth living, a life you truly enjoy. An attitude of gratitude is so much more enjoyable then an attitude of frustration or disappointment. Try it, it works.
Yoga necessitates a change in each and every practitioner. New ways of approaching challenge naturally emerge, whether or not the person practicing is even aware of working on them. A new person is forged, a better, stronger, more present version of you emerges at the end of every practice, and this person, without even realizing it, might be the inspiration for countless others.
Practice heroically. The world needs people like you.