Devotional Meditation in Motion
“Have you ever done a 108?” Katherine asked, in response to my impulsive and enthusiastic acceptance of her invitation to participate in Operation Finding Peace – a day of yoga at Kaia Yoga benefitting the Give Back Yoga Foundation, a nonprofit that provides yoga to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
No, I have never done a 108. I barely know what a 108 is. All I knew was that I felt compelled to do it. I was sure of very little, but I was sure I had to do this 108.
The familiar, superficial reason was because I am attracted to challenge. The harder it is the better. If it’s not hard, it’s not worth it. A yoga marathon? To prove I am a true yogini? I am in.
The outward facing reason was because it was for a good cause. In my mid-life search for meaning, the cause aspect of the event was completely appealing. I could tell people I was doing a yoga marathon to benefit a good cause which would make me look like a good person.
Digging a little deeper, a subtler reason was because I like to be agreeable and inclusive. And certainly this was an easy yes. Katherine was a new yoga friend and my connection to a new yoga community. I wanted to say yes to her. I wanted to fit in to this new yoga community. Being agreeable and inclusive serves me well, but only up to a point. As a relationship evolves, whether it is personal or professional, you will reach a place of disagreement and it becomes important to put yourself out there with a clear point of view. This statement of ME terrifies me. I don’t do it well and have historically hidden from situations involving such a strong expression of ME, letting friendships wither and jeopardizing my professional development. It is easier to begin new endeavors and new relationships then to work through the challenges of fighting for ME while fighting through the challenges of the relationship.
But the real reason I said yes to the 108 was because yoga has saved my life, giving me the courage to create the life I want to live – a joyful loving authentic one, not the life I was living, a more duty-driven one filled with chores and work and a focus on responsibility.
When, at the auspicious “mid-life-crisis/enlightenment” age of 47, I was passed over for promotion, losing my team, and sidelined to a quieter job, I questioned everything. On my daily commute to mid-town Manhattan, I cried every morning on the walk between Grand Central and the gleaming office tower, feeling humiliated and old and mourning the loss of my outward self that I had presented to the world all these years. Athletic and trained as a ballet dancer in my teens, yoga became my refuge. Some days, I just wanted to rest in child’s pose and breathe. Other days, I wanted to work so hard I didn’t have enough breath to chant “om.” And who was I to be chanting “om” anyway? The only child of cerebral scientists, I jokingly referred to myself as a 3rd generation heathen. Moreover, I was woefully disconnected from my body. As a dancer, I had wonderful body discipline and body control, but I did not respect my body.
I discovered Ashtanga yoga – the elixir for type A personalities that I proudly imagined myself to be. I dutifully mastered the primary series and welcomed the intense assists, because it took a lot of pain for me to feel my body. But then the neck pain became unbearable. I had pushed myself too hard and was forced to feel my body. I had to acknowledge that perhaps I had not mastered the primary series after all, at least not safely and wisely. Perhaps my body had something to say to me. I revisited trauma from my childhood and the resulting perfectionism, eating issues, difficulty with relationships, and more. Back in talk therapy after a 20 year hiatus, I delved into meditation and slower forms of yoga, and began to awaken to ME. I began to honor an intuitive understanding that I had to practice yoga and to share yoga. It was helping me connect to my body and helping me to be honest, compassionate, and loving with my self and people I love. All I know now is that loving my family and my deepening circle of friends is the only thing that matters to me, so I will listen to my yoga intuition and follow it.
My yoga intuition brought me to the 108 at Kaia Yoga.
What is a 108?
When you google it, you will get various explanations about why the number 108 is sacred. I found I could not retain any of these explanations, other than Katherine’s: “It’s a devotional meditation.” Oh, and it’s a lot of sun salutations. I was up for the physical challenge. Was I up for the devotional meditation?
But first, what to wear? When I have anxiety, it’s easy for me to fall back on a familiar neurosis – equating how I look with my worth. I found myself madly – madly! – contemplating shopping for a new yoga outfit at the last minute the day before the event even though I spent the day at work and was hosting my best friend from my childhood for dinner that evening from out of town. I talked myself out of the urgent but ridiculous desire to shop for and sport a new outfit. (I succumbed to getting a haircut.) For the record, I did choose comfortable leggings and a top that would require no undergarments. The less clothing the better and who needs a t-shirt flopping over your head when you are upside down in Downward Dog a multiple of 108 times.
Next, what to eat? I have food issues. (Remember, how I look equates with my self-worth, so I better look good which, for me, means being thin.) Eating the right amount of food to give me sufficient energy but not digestive gas was important to me. And, you know, maybe I’ll lose some weight – always a good thing. Isn’t that why we do yoga? The event started at 3:00, so I knew I had to eat something around noon. I chose a concoction of quinoa, black bean salad, and feta cheese. I was a little worried about the beans, but it worked out. No gas, phew.
I arrive and there is purposeful energy in the place. It feels both calming and exciting just to be there. I don’t know very many people, and there is much buzzing amongst the people who do know each other. I could go to a place of feeling like I don’t belong, but hey, it’s a yoga studio. By definition, it’s a welcoming place. I feel like I can belong if I choose to. I survey the studio and it’s crowded with people, primarily women. (Where are the men?) I place my mat on the outskirts. I have never practiced yoga with this large a quantity of people. It could be overwhelming, but I choose not to let it. I spy an open space right in the middle. That is where I want to be, right in it. I move my mat. I make friendly connecting eye contact with a few of my neighbors, but I know this is going to be an internal experience. I settle into child’s pose and breathe.
Because I have tried to move beyond my type A approach to yoga, I begin talking to myself. You don’t have to do all 108. You don’t have to jump back. You don’t have to do Chaturanga. You don’t have to prove anything. Just be here now.
Stan is our leader for the 108. There is a collective anticipation as we prepare to begin. We chant the traditional opening Ashtanga prayer. I hear my Ashtanga teacher Constanza’s voice and notice that Stan’s pronunciation is different. The difference throws me off. Even though I know the chant, I forget it in the excitement and decide to let it wash over me, joining in the opening and closing “om’s.” The vibration of the om from all those people is intense. It feels like we are going to take off! I LOVE IT.
Stan sets our intention for the first 10. The purpose of yoga is to end suffering. Yep, no problem. No suffering for me! The first 10 are easy for me. Yay for me! I shake out my jitters. And then I remember that I do suffer. A lot. And then I remember it’s not about me anyway. Stan calls to my mind the suffering of the veterans we are honoring and the global suffering of our world. We are all together in this.
Gratitude for the next 10. We are so lucky to be in this beautiful place all together. I am deeply grateful. (When I remember to be grateful.)
Peace for the next 10. My mind begins to swirl and is anything but peaceful. How does he keep count? Did I step back with my left foot last time? Should I step back with my right foot this time? Wow, we’re at 20 – there are a lot more to go. This is going to be boring. How about that, my shoulders are more sore than I expected. This is going to be hard. I wonder what kind of food will be at the celebration tonight? What if I am too shy to introduce myself to all these people tonight? I am missing my daughter’s Spanish Honor Society induction ceremony tonight. I am selfish and self-absorbed, a terrible mother.
Unity for the next 10. We are doing this together in unity, but now my pride separates me from being one with the group. Look at ME! (Too bad I don’t have a new outfit.) I am better than everyone else. Look, she’s sitting. Look she’s standing. I jump back to Chaturanga this time. Oh yea, I’m good at yoga! Oops, I am not as good at her. Uh oh.
Clarity for the next 10. $#@! Who cares.
And then, the shift happens. I stop thinking.
The next four groups of ten are a blur. I take one decade “off” – resting in child’s pose and breathing. I rejoin the movement, feeling a sense of peace and determination. The room has gotten very quiet; it is just Stan’s quiet leadership and our collective breathing. A devotional meditation it is.
The ninth decade is Family. I love my family. I will do anything for them. They are the source of joy and meaning in my life. I give each sun salutation special attention and a special prayer for Thom, Kiera, and Aidan.
Last, we devote our selves to Love. What else is there? Yoga is love.
108 Sun Salutations later, we rest in Savasana together. Unity, clarity, peace, gratitude, love.