For 25 years I taught yoga at the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City. Eliot Hall, the church’s community space, has long been home to many of the city’s non-traditional community events. It has housed acoustic music coffeehouses on the second and fourth Fridays of every month for more than 30 years. The Humanists of Utah meet there each month. The Salt Lake Acting Company’s Utah culture spoof, Saturday’s Voyeur, was first performed in Eliot Hall. And these are just a few examples of the community-minded atmosphere at the church.
The welcoming environment—along with the sprung wood dance floor—made it ideal for yoga classes. But, as with everything, it came with complications. Sometimes the floor was less than pristine, which is fine when you’re standing around and socializing, but not so much when you’re up close and personal with it, lying on a yoga mat. Also, the fluorescent lights weren’t super conducive to relaxation.
There were other distractions as well. Occasionally people would walk through the space on their way to an event elsewhere in the building. The annual haunted house for the Sunday school kids took place directly overhead during the last week of October, replete with stomping and shrieking. One time during Savasana, a pizza delivery guy showed up loaded down with pizzas for a meeting in another room.
Still, for the most part, my students and I were able to maintain good humor about the various goings-on.
While I’m grateful to teach in a quiet, dedicated space these days, I don’t regret the years at the church. Those years taught my students and me about perseverance. They taught us that you didn’t need to have hothouse conditions to practice. In fact, if you wait for perfect conditions to appear before you can practice, you’re unlikely ever to start.
Getting Past the “If Only” Syndrome
Some years ago, I heard the expression “if only” applied to the reasons we put off practicing: If only my knee didn’t hurt, I could actually sit still and meditate. If only it were quieter, I could really focus on my asanas. If only my mind would stop wandering, I could really get somewhere in my practice. These are just a few examples. There are infinitely more.
The truth is, no matter how hard we strive to create the perfect environment for practice, we have no control over what actually happens. The same is true, of course, of our daily lives. Our practice is not meant to teach us how to create perfect lives; it is meant to teach us how to navigate the inevitable ups and downs of our lives with equanimity.
The things we call “distractions” or “obstacles” to our practice are actually part of the practice. Are there unwanted sounds in our practice space? Okay. Those sounds are part of the present moment, and therefore, something we can invite into our awareness. Are family members constantly interrupting your practice? Not a problem. Be fully present with them while they’re in your space, and then return to your practice with full presence when they go. Hanging on to your frustration isn’t helpful.
There will always be things that we perceive as obstacles along our paths. Can we shift our perception so that we understand these things instead as opportunities for practice? The measure of our practice is not how perfect our lives appear to be. The measure of our practice is how we navigate the imperfect situations we find ourselves in every day. Practicing yoga no matter what is happening in our environment cultivates the equanimity we need to live with grace.