“Which of you here brush your teeth every day?”
I didn’t need to turn around to know that all hands were raised in the air.
“Who brushes twice a day?”
Most hands remained.
“Can anyone tell me why they brush their teeth every day?”
There was a momentary silence. This seemingly straightforward question provoked everyone in the room to think carefully. “Dental hygiene?” came the first response, nervously posed as a question in fear of giving the wrong answer. “Fresh breath?” “To prevent decay?” “Habit?” It was eventually agreed without doubt that we all habitually brush, without thinking, simply because we know it to be good for our teeth.
“Meditation is like brushing your teeth for the mind,” said Sean, then manager of Hariharalaya retreat centre in Cambodia. This simple statement instantly struck a chord with me and has remained at the forefront of my mind ever since. It was one of those moments where words jump out and make something suddenly seem so obvious; if we can find time each day to take care of our teeth, why is it so difficult to find time to look after our mind?
At this point, I had been meditating regularly for almost two years. I knew first-hand its abundant benefits, impacting not only on my thought patterns, but in turn on my behaviour and relationships with others. I had experienced improvements in my sleep, my creativity, my ability to focus. Despite all of this, I had never previously aligned meditation with mental health. Sean’s words instantly prompted me to reassess my perspective of yoga and I have never looked back.
Fast-forward a couple of years to my recent move to Portugal. Fresh from three months of travel and a yoga teacher training in India, I was under no illusion as to the benefits of this practice. Yet somehow, during this stressful period of upheaval and change, I was able to justify to myself repeatedly that I had "no time" for yoga. It was in fact, exactly what I needed; time and space to reflect and let go. Even during the most tumultuous anxiety, there is peace to be found lying dormant beneath.
Sadly, this can be difficult to remember in such times. Accessing it often requires overcoming hurdles of denial. This isn’t a new phenomenon for me, and certainly won’t be for the majority of those who practise yoga. No matter how much joy and peace and energy we know that it brings us, we go through times where it seems that there are simply not enough hours in the day. Times when yoga becomes part of a to-do list rather than part of the fabric of life.
Luckily, I remembered something. Under the canopy of the Cambodian jungle, Sean had asked one more question:
“What happens if you forget to brush your teeth one night? Do you wake up the next day and think ‘that’s it, I’m never brushing again’?”
No. You pick up the toothbrush and carry on. This point has taken me a while longer to digest and acknowledge as the metaphor it was intended to be. Many of us are programmed to aim for perfection, giving up if we perceive that we are not going to achieve a 100% record or that we are not able to give something our absolute best. I’d be lying if I said this hasn’t ever applied to me. Thankfully, I no longer let it apply to my yoga practice. In the wise words of Salvador Dali, “have no fear of perfection - you’ll never reach it.”
I am slowly coming to accept that it’s ok to miss a day on the mat. It’s even ok to miss a week! It makes no difference if there are 2 minutes or 2 hours to spare. It’s not about how many shapes you can contort your body into, or how many minutes you can sit still. It’s no problem to be exhausted or worried or preoccupied. In such lulls, I have learned to take a step back and remind myself why I started practising yoga in the first place. More often than not, remembering my intention brings me back to the mat even on the busiest of days.
After many years of practising yoga, only recently am I beginning to appreciate the meaning of living yoga. Of allowing it into every moment of the day, whether on or off the mat. Whether in downward dog or taking the dog for a walk. Of course, this doesn’t come easily. It takes dedication, practice and the humility to accept when you have wandered and bring yourself back, without beating yourself up. When you begin to bring the values of yoga into your everyday life, it doesn’t matter how much or how little time you have in a day. After all, one of yoga’s vital lessons is to be at peace with what is, exactly as it is. No matter how imperfect.