Encouraging Environments

Encouraging Environments


In the studio, my yoga instructor says grab two blocks, a strap, and a blanket. I stand up from my mat and walk to the cubbies. While waiting in line, I ruminate about a new relationship; why wasn’t she texting me back, I kept wondering. She was the first person I connected with in weeks, and not hearing from her, I felt alone.

The woman in front of me, slides out a blanket from the cubbyhole and stacks the two blocks on top along with a strap. I try to walk around when she turns and says, "here you go", handing me her stack. I pause, how kind, and I mouth thank you before scurrying to my mat.

For the next hour, I followed the instructor's lead, in movement and breath, synchronizing with my 10 classmates. With each pose, my nervous system fired, and repeatedly instead of being overwhelmed, I inhaled deeply and exhaled broadly. My shoulders eased down my back. My hips loosened and my mind found comfort in my classmates and the grueling hour we conquered together.

"Namaste," the instructor says in the dimly lit yoga studio. In unison, we bow our chin to our chests. My head lifts and my eyes flutter open.

In the mirror ahead, all sit cross legged. A few friends with a resting smile. I take one last inhale while soaking in the atmosphere. The feeling of my relaxed eyes. My neighbor with the same Nalgene water bottle as me. My friend who handed me the blanket and blocks. How kind.

As soon as I exhale fully, I spring to my feet, quickly roll up my mat, and with my head down buzz past the classmates, into the entryway. The instructor relaxes against the counter, a restful smile under her eyes. I want to linger. But out the class windows, people busy to and fro, and I'm reminded how much I have to do today. Other times the following class's students enter and I feel in the way. It's too easy to default to not connecting. I glance her way, blurt out thank you, and head out the door.


Suddenly I'm behind the wheel, traffic stopped in front of me. My mind ruminates about this new woman in my life, desperately I try not to feel so alone.

Why do we do this? It's like going to the gym, running a mile on the treadmill, and as you exit, you pull out a brownie from your bag and smash it into your face. In the yoga studio, before we give the practice a chance to take root, we're already on the next checkbox. Instead of rushing past these opportunities for connection, why don't we linger until they arise?

How the Body Keeps Score, by Bessel van der Kolk, a book on trauma, sheds some light on how this space after class heals¹, this space where we are connected to those around us and trust them.

He says, we overcome trauma (big and small) of our past "by allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma."

As soon as a class ends, we're in a state of relaxation and trust where we can redefine our meaning of interacting with others. It's a space where it's "easy" to practice new ways of being in the world², and through experimentation, our eyes open to the possibilities. We act instead of react. And all we have to do is linger.

If I paused life for a few minutes, I could have viscerally contradicted that depressing feeling this woman is causing in my life. And I would have walked out knowing, I'm not alone.

YET I don't pause. WHY?

While living in Mexico, I often attended another activity which provided a safe environment. Monthly I used to attend a Mexican temazcal³, which is a traditional sauna, similar to a Native American sweat lodge. The lodge is a compact dome, covered in colorful Mexican serape blankets. Inside, ten of us sit knee to knee around a fire pit where scolding volcanic rocks pyramid up. The shaman, a grey bearded, shirtless man, pours water on the rocks, and the steam fills the lodge. He pours water again and again. Cautiously you inhale, questioning if the steam will burn the inside of your lungs. And when past grievances and future desires dissolve in the struggle to take a full breath the music begins.

Led by the shaman, we chant and sing and drum and celebrate. AND SWEAT. Oh god do we sweat. After an hour inside, surrounded by the ordered chaos of fire and music, we crawl out on our hands and knees; earth clings to our sweat and saliva covered bodies. And we lay down, just us, the jungle, the stars above.⁴

After "class", deep in the jungle, it's difficult to tuck your head down and rush out. When we catch our breath, we float down a path into a one room house. In the hut, everyone relaxes, sharing our experience, playing games, and eating the juiciest watermelon of our lives. In the jungle we’re encouraged to linger.

I dream of a yoga studio like this!

What if I walk out of the class and the instructor relaxes at a table, a bowl of fruit in front of her, as she waves me over. We play games and talk about class and the complexities of new relationships, as I shake my fist at the heavens.

After we chit chat and play each other our favorite songs, I stroll to my car. Behind the steering wheel, instead of ruminating about my relationship, I’m thinking about my friend who gave me the blanket stack and about the game of Uno I won. In an effortless state, I wave a pedestrian across, then another, when behind me the angry taxi driver leans on the horn — I wave to him too. I know I'm not alone. . . after lingering.