We love guest posts for this blog and just wish we had more to share with you. But we also know that busy lives often don’t leave folks much time to do things like sit still…reflect…write. Which for many is probably also true when it comes to yoga — it requires intense focus and concentration.
I just got back from one of my favorite places on earth: Montana. And after a short day of work was lucky enough to get out and do some fly-fishing with some wonderful friends. (More on that adventure in the coming days.) Now, I’m just a novice on the stream, but watching the experts fish one could easily see they were in their “flow.” And by the end of that magnificent day, I got a little taste of it, too.
Friend Lisa Bertagnoli wrote this piece after spending a few hot days with us this summer. After her visit, Lisa, who practices yoga, seemed to more deeply understand how “flow” is so individual. Yoga gives her transport. Horses elevate me to a different state of mind. And fly-fishing, well, just sweeps you away.
The Meaning of Yoga
I’ve been practicing yoga for about a year, and I like it.
This is why. Yoga requires focus. If my mind wanders even a second during class, I fall, most embarrassingly, out of a pose. This intense focus gives yoga the power to transport. For that hour of controlled breathing and stretching, I go somewhere else. Where, I cannot tell you, but it’s definitely not Chicago, where I live.
I like yoga for practical reasons, too. It’s a great workout, and I sweat more than I thought possible (who knew shins sweat?). And it’s fun. The other day we were practicing handstands and honestly, I felt like I was back in third grade. But mostly, I love yoga for that mind-body connection.
Because I like it so much, I think everyone should at least try yoga. So pretty much everyone I meet, I ask if they’ve tried yoga. If the answer is no, I insist, with all the fervor of a recent convert: “You’ve got to. It’s like nothing else.”
I was talking to my friend Claudia one day last year and, at an appropriate time in the conversation, asked her if she had tried yoga. I was all set to hear “no” and all set to insist, until I heard her answer: “Horses are my yoga.” I remember thinking: Now Claudia, horses cannot possibly be yoga. Horseback riding is not done in a sweat-soaked, clingy outfit, nor is it done on a two-foot-by-six-foot mat. Nor are horseback rides concluded with “namaste” or “om.” But her answer was so sure that I didn’t push.
Fast forward to the summer of 2011. I visited Claudia on her farm, a repository for all kinds of living things including people, chickens, dogs, jackrabbits and horses. I need to be honest: I believe horses are beautiful, intelligent creatures that should be admired and petted but not ridden, because they are big and have minds of their own. I had no intention of riding, but I was eager to meet Claudia’s horses and admire them from a safe distance.
Saturday morning – a steamy Alabama morning, 90 degrees by 7 a.m. – we headed to a neighboring farm where Claudia’s big chestnut guy Rio lives. Rio had an abscess that needed medical attention. So Claudia attended to it and I helped. We led Rio, who is as tall as a house, away from his friends in the pasture to a barn, then cleaned and medicated the wound. Then we gave Rio a snack, and finally returned him to his horse friends. These maneuvers, for me at least, required as much concentration as driving in a blizzard – to make sure the pasture gate was secure, that Rio would let Claudia clean his boo-boo without fussing (what happens when a 1,500-pound animal fusses?), and that he wouldn’t escape and go tearing off to god-knows-where.
That afternoon, we returned to the farm to hang out with more equine friends, Dane and Merlin. Claudia saddled up Dane, put on her velvet riding helmet and rode him around the pasture. I watched as he responded to her commands, so subtle as to be invisible. As I watched, fascinated, it looked to me as if Claudia’s entire being, mind and body, was focused entirely on that horse. Not on what we were going to make for dinner, or her to-do list, or work. Only Dane.
Then it was my turn. I hadn’t been on a horse since I was 14, and I was nervous. But I trusted Claudia and, after seeing the two of them in motion, trusted Dane. She led me around the ring, the two of them doing all the work, me sitting, trying to keep my back ramrod-straight. In an instant, I understood how horses are Claudia’s yoga. The workout. The sweat. That transport, the reward when an activity requires unwavering concentration.
After our tour around the ring, Claudia bathed and fed Dane and Merlin, and I helped. We rinsed them and sudsed them and currycombed them and even removed some fungal infection from Merlin’s legs. It was absorbing. I got that feeling of “flow,” as they call it, from being completely focused. That night I was tired and a little sore, but in a most pleasant way.
Pretty much like after yoga.
Claudia tells me that after a lifetime of being around horses, all this comes as second nature to her. And I hope that in a few years, yoga, at least parts of it, will become second nature to me as well. I don’t think, however, that will detract from the basic nature of both pursuits: the complete involvement, the unique blend of mental and physical skills, and that oh-so-exhilarating pause from the demands of everyday life.
Yoga purists will disagree, but in my mind, “yoga” is shorthand for any activity that offers that distinctive pleasure. When it’s over, you’re a little breathless, maybe exhausted, definitely exhilarated. Whether it’s yoga, horses, baking, gardening or playing the cello, no life should be without it. Try it. Most definitely, try it.
– Lisa Bertagnoli