As previously featured in The Yoga Diaries
At 17 my life was pretty full. I was a high school student, editor in chief of a literary magazine, a professional ballet dancer, a college applicant, a seeker of romance, a perfectionist, a daydreamer, and an anorexic.
My life felt like a fast freight train, going at full speed with a ticket to a destination of which I was unaware. I woke up in the mornings with a highly altered pulse, ready to jump up and take on the world in a rush.
It seemed my mantra at that time was “do everything, say yes to everything, and do it quickly, for you might run out of time.”
On one of my high school summer breaks, I decided to advance my ballet career by attending an intensive ballet camp, with rigorous teachers and other professional dancers. I felt a deep passion as I set out to class each day, and I relished the rush of adrenaline every time my body moved in unison with the piano music. And yet, along with this passion, there was also the accompanying urge to achieve a perfect ballerina’s body, a compelling drive to attain more in life in order to feel satisfied with who I was. I constantly looked at myself through the eyes of one for whom nothing is enough, and for whom there were plenty of reasons to be unsatisfied. I compensated by taking more dance classes outside of my regular schedule, practicing extra hours, and making more plans for advancing my dance career.
My body finally gave in. It was during a rehearsal for an important performance. My dance partner lifted me, and as I landed, my foot twisted and my Achilles tendon tweaked. I cringed for a moment, looking worriedly at my foot, and impatiently at my body for not keeping up with the beat.
“Just keep going,” said the teacher. “This is not the time to stop.” And so, I did. I kept going on my fast train, as my pained body and self-disappointed mind danced along.
Finally the time came when my foot could no longer hold me up on pointe shoes. I reluctantly went to the doctor and after a thorough checkup and x-rays he said the words I had been dreading all this time: “You need to give yourself time to rest and slow down.”
In panic I asked, “But, will I ever dance again?” I felt my entire life and self-image crumbling down to pieces.
“Maybe, maybe not.” said the doctor. “But for now, it’s time to stop.”
I cried endlessly for the next month, as my sore foot and leg lay immobile in a cast, and the life I had planned for myself started to turn in front of my eyes. For years I had taught my body the art of dance. It taught me, in generous return, the art of surrender.
When enough time had gone by that I could walk again, something had shifted inside. I had given myself (or life had pushed me to give myself) the time to look at my life from a quiet -and physically still- standpoint. There was an unexpected sense of serenity in letting go of my expectations. Beyond the fear and nervousness, a deep longing for “something else” was slowly arising.
A good friend of mine saw the sudden change in my passionate drive, and out of compassion (and a bit of worry for my suddenly quiet state), invited me to a meditation and yoga retreat. I figured I that I had nothing to lose. So I packed up my bags and headed for the weekend retreat.
As I sat down to meditate for the first time in my life, I felt myself “arriving” in my body. I felt my healing foot, the sore muscles on my back, even my worked- up brain. Although I had been a dancer for many years, it was like meeting my body for the first time. It was my own body, not the body I had been urgently trying to fix and improve. And then I came upon a long-time companion, so present and yet just now meeting for the first time: my breath. A turning point.
Now, looking back at myself as a teenager, I realize I am not that much different. I treasure art, dance, writing, seeking new vistas, growing, overcoming limits, and seeing things from new perspectives. I am still passionate, and I am definitely still a perfectionist! And yet, yoga has allowed me to let go of the extra baggage that shrouded this passion.
As I move through asana, my ballerina self is present, however she now follows not only an outer music beat, but also the inner, quiet rhythm of breath. Although I never achieved the ultimate perfect body of a ballerina, yoga inspired a new respect and gratitude for my body. Although I didn’t get into the Ivy League college that I wanted, I met the love of my life at my second choice college. And, although things usually don’t turn out exactly the way I plan them to, yoga teaches me every day there is a sacred flow in life: filled with surprise, with wonder, with love.
And during those moments of rush and stress, I now catch myself in the old freight train. Yoga reminds me that I can ask for it to stop; I can step off, pause, and reconnect with my heart: where I can be, where I am enough, and where all is perfect, in its own perfectly unexpected way.