Since he was wearing such a charming smile, I wasn’t particularly alarmed when a strange guy on the street grabbed my arm and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” Turns out he was wrong about that. I remembered Axel very well. It took me only a second to recognize this open-faced, snappily dressed man as the young tough guy who used to attend my morning yoga classes ten years ago.
Back then Axel didn’t look so friendly. Along with a shaved head and many tats, his numerous piercings gave off an aggressive vibe that seemed to say, “Don’t even thinkof bothering me.” He kept to himself but he also kept coming back to yoga class. He paid good attention and was energetic and determined in class—maybe too determined. He reminded me of a hard-boiled egg, all his youthful energy and heat turned inward and covered with a thin but unyielding shell.
So I was surprised the day he raised his hand to ask a question. We’d been working on exercises to open the shoulders and chest muscles in preparation for doing a big backbend, one that was not available to Axel yet. All the students went quiet. He asked, “Is the reason I can’t do a backbend because my heart is closed?”
Axel tended to put too much effort in to his physical yoga practice. Unless he was hammering away—grabbing for his toes in forward bends, pounding the wall in handstand kicks, squeezing everything in standing balances—he literally couldn’t feel anything. Many of us have the same habit, pushing and pulling as hard as we can. This creates a response loop that causes us to lose the ability to be sensitive to the subtle unfolding of our mind and body.
But when Axel asked that question it was obvious to everyone but him that he had changed. His consistent yoga practice had begun eroding his aggressive attitude in the same way that rain wears down rock. The sharp edges soften and the stone hollows, becoming a cup that receives water and turns it into refreshment. The only problem was that even though Axel was softening inside, his habitual way of relating to himself as a tough guy hadn’t changed.
Just as my parents didn’t treat me like an adult until I was about 45-years-old, we don’t always notice as we, or our loved ones, evolve, soften, harden, expand, and contract. As I write this, I am sitting at the bedside of my sick, elderly mother. At 85, she has changed a lot. Her mind is too loose and she can’t hold thoughts and words together very well. As I hold her soft, little hands, bruised from so many IVs, but still sporting girly pink nail polish, I am grateful for my yoga practice. I’ve trained myself to move mindfully—sensitively feeling the texture of my yoga mat with each downward dog pose; noticing my thoughts without judgment in each detoxifying deep-twist; softening into a stretch rather than straining. As I stroke my mom’s hair and spoon-feed her tiny bites of applesauce, I realize these delicate moments are what I’ve been practicing for over all those years.
Axel’s question was like a crack in the eggshell, letting out a little bit of his natural goodness. As the teacher, it was my job to mirror that back to him. “Axel, your heart isn’t closed. It’s just that the muscles of your chest and shoulders are tight, and that’s no big deal. We can easily work on that.”
A lot of what we normally think, say, and do is habitual, so it may seem ironic that when we practice yoga we also engage in repetitive activity. We do sun salutations day in and day out, but what makes it yoga as opposed to unconscious habit is awareness. This is the most important part of the practice. Yoga is not just about the doing; it’s also how we are doing what we are doing that makes it yoga. Drip, drip, drip, the practice eventually balances our mind and body and we find that we have changed in a good way, become more functional and connected to ourself and others.
Axel didn’t have a lot of time to chat. He’s busy these days with his wife and new baby. He mostly practices yoga at home since his business has taken off. As he walked away with a little wave, the sun reflected off his beautiful bald egghead.