you can't take the yoga out of the girl

 photo credit: Audrey Billups, The Nomadic Filmmaker

photo credit: Audrey Billups, The Nomadic Filmmaker

It’s day two of being back on my mat.

In class, with a studio full of slim, sinewy bodies hungry for solace. Grounding. Sweating. Processing. 

After months on the road, I’m finally home.

Home enough, at least, for a wanderlust nomad spirit like me.

A long journey has come and gone, with a world of blessings and lessons now to be integrated in retrospect, reflection, and fresh red blood cells. Lengthy hours on the road, new adventures in familiar places, space enough in my mind to let the wind guide my compass—for a time. It was a trip of consciousness in every sober instant, as much as it was a break from my stuck-feeling identity in need of a travel-induced makeover, to make room for the pieces of me still in the process of coming into being.

Over the course of six months on the road, my asana practice was sporadic, at best—absent might be a more accurate term. My self-care routine grew lax between frigid seas and redwood forests, corn fields and roller coasters, ski resorts and skyscrapers. Discipline took a backseat to flexibility, responding to the novelty and excitement of experiences daring to be lived; my thirst for life “off the mat” unwilling to wait—even for a few routine series of sun salutations.

Some days, there were many more excuses why not, than reasons I believed my practice should take priority over breakfast on the farm, bedtime snuggles with my niece, or chasing swell somewhere salty with my love.

Sure, I missed it: the certain sense of calm in my mind and fluidity in my limbs that comes from honoring my daily yoga practice. Yet I’d be lying if I said I’d trade even one second of my journey for more time on my mat.

Because sometimes, I allow myself the decadence to believe that there is more to life than asana, and the journey itself is the teacher—the yoga of life unfolding around us, through us, within us as we travel and stay present to the everyday sensations in our midst.

But I’d also be lying if I said my travels were the only reason I had strayed from the mat as of late. In fact, when I dig a little deeper, there’s a shadow side to all this light that also needs airing. Like the clothes in my closet after a long season of heavy tropical rains.

To be perfectly honest, in the last few years I’ve grown overwhelmingly disillusioned with all things yoga. Or more precisely, with all the things yoga has become in the West. Commodified. Commercialized. Superficial. Appropriated and objectified. Sexualized. Exercised.

Yoga has become what Western materialist culture does to all things left sacred on this Earth: strip them of their history, steal their symbols, words, and cultural signifiers, twist them into a packaged product to be sold to the spiritless masses, slap a dollar sign on sacred objects and experiences and turn them into a multi-billion dollar global industry built on a materially affluent, spiritually bankrupt population looking for the next sure thing to save their souls, and help them become sexy, radiant Instagram celebrities—if they play their cards right.

It’s not an original critique, by any means, this disillusionment I began to carry so deep in my bones that I swore off yoga class and all that expensive gear and promised I’d only practice on my own, with my shabby old mat, in no brand-name clothes. So deep, in fact, I had a hard time believing any of it anymore. Seventeen years of yoga philosophy, lifestyle, and regular asana practice—more than half of my life and admittedly at least a good third of my personal identity.

Before I knew it, my critical mind had sabotaged my spiritual practice to a point that I no longer wished to participate. I couldn’t fathom the thought of being just another one of those yoga girls slurping it all up like $10 kombucha on tap at the over-priced vegan breakfast bar. Asana was just another word I probably didn’t even pronounce well enough to be worthy of borrowing or practicing with any sense of spiritual belonging.

So I stopped. First slowly—sporadically. And then completely, cold turkey.

And travel was as light an excuse as any to keep me from acknowledging the ways my self-righteous critic had perhaps gone a little too far this time, throwing the metaphorical baby out with the bathwater and stripping my soul of its most savored sense of spiritual solace—the satisfaction of a life of yoga, lived both on and off the mat, every single day. In the process of rejecting the Western perversion of yoga as a sacred, spiritual, and socio-historical tradition, I lost my compass. My North Star. My guiding light. My way back home.

But what is a long journey if not a space to refine and redirect, reflect and reconnect? And perhaps I needed six months off the mat, in a thousand bursts of sensational adventure, to remember exactly what yoga truly means to me. Beyond lifestyle. Beyond practice. Beyond process. Beyond, even, peace.

Because yoga, to me, is a path without a map. A place without a name. A journey and a destination, all the same.

*This story was originally published in June 2018 with The Elephant Journal