I used to love making the bridge between what I learned in yoga classes and what I was experiencing in my life. In hindsight, dozens of old blog posts, journal entries, and e-mails to friends write that story well, a long string of narratives on change, on letting go, on loving, on healing, on hurting, on time passing.
When you cultivate a faith in something—be it a god, a philosophy, a way of life, your own soul—you strive to live that faith everywhere, in everything. That’s the point, right? And my religion, for nearly 10 years now, is yoga.
What always stumps me is how many times we question that faith though, despite its deep and intoxicating hold on our core, on our understanding of the world and our selves in it. We forget it, or drift away from it, or turn our backs and abandon it completely, only to kneel, in stones, just to gather it back up again.
Lately, life has poked and pushed at me—at my hesitation, my doubt, and (ultimately) my fear at taking some much-needed risks. And it’s because I’ve wavered; I’ve been waiting.
And, lately, I’ve been taking to the riding ring nearly as much as the yoga mat, so perhaps it’s fitting that this morning, my horseback riding trainer reminded me of a very simple, yet very powerful, yoga lesson I learned years ago and have tested many times since and should be put on refrain in my head for the weeks to come:
Just breathe, have courage, and have faith that you’ll land.
As a child, I used to take my horses over jumps all the time. Granted, we weren’t conquering five-foot walls or leaping across gullies, but my modest two- and even three-footers made me quite proud. I’d guided a 1,000-pound horse over those rails, and stayed atop him all the while, and managed to get us both to the other side unscathed. That amounted to something in my estimation.
And yet, today, when my trainer began instructing me on how to get over a six-inch-high pair of cross-rails, my mind reeled, and I actually felt a wave of nauseated panic.
Sure, in the months of June and July, my horse Jill and I have grown into quite a successful riding unit, all calm, collected cantering and steady seated trots, without stirrups, too, round and round a sun-soaked ring. I’ve worked my way up to two rides a week, meaning my legs hurt less and my checkbook is nearly empty and my horse knows the unique, precise sound of my boots. The extra hours have helped me gain confidence and leadership in the saddle—I understand now that it’s my responsibility to have a plan, execute it, guide my horse through it, and adjust as needed along the way.
And all this means that my trainer, back after a few weeks away, is quite satisfied with my progress and quite determined to get me jumping. “Yep, you’re ready — you can do it!” she exclaimed.
She talked me through the set up and the follow through, had me walk Jill up to the jump and around it, and then patted Jill’s rump and sent us off. There was no pep talk, no assurances.
Our first go wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t awful either. I was trying too hard to anticipate, to get ahead of my horse. The second time wasn’t much better. And the third time, one of Jill’s hooves banged against the rail.
My trainer called for me to stop. I tried hard not to let defeat and disappointment overwhelm me as she strode over.
“You know, I’m watching you,” she began, stroking Jill’s neck, “and you’re not breathing.”
In that exact moment, I let out a massive breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding.
“You’re not breathing, and you’re not listening, to yourself or to Jill,” my trainer continued, still looking thoughtfully into my horse’s face, not mine. “It’s like any jump, in the ring or in life, Mattie. Take a breath, grab hold of some courage, and have faith that you’ll land.”
She paused. “You will land. Simple as that.”
Our eyes met, and she smiled, one of her rare but warm and encouraging smiles, and I felt myself grin back, and breathe deeper, and relax into the bright morning and the strong animal beneath me. As I steered Jill back to the rail, readying for our next attempt, I thought about all the risks I’ve taken, all the chances I’ve grabbed at, even the great cliffs of change from which I’ve leapt, blindly. I thought about my yoga, about the years it took for me to learn to just breathe, to listen to my self, to trust that I’d always come out the other side, to remember I am my mother’s courageous and brave daughter. I thought about how, even when I’ve fallen, there’s land—and arms, and love, so much love—to cushion the impact.
We picked up a trot, and then we moved into a canter, and when that jump flew under us, all I felt was Jill’s power and lift, all I heard was my exhale, and then the thud of her hooves moving us across the ring. My trainer clapped, and the other rider in the ring nodded her head in approval, and Jill even tossed her nose about, quite proud, quite satisfied.
Later, after I’d hosed Jill down, we found shade beneath a big, billowing maple tree alongside the pasture. While she grazed, I watched a little girl trot in little, lead-line circles, noted her mother leaning over the rail, observing each movement and instruction closely. That girl sat perfectly straight in the saddle, heels down, legs firmly gripped, shoulders square, her helmet bouncing lightly in time with her pony’s steps. She wore a contented, confident smile I know I once wore plainly, daily, as a young and eager equestrian.
And it occurred to me that perhaps yoga didn’t teach me about breathing, and courage, and trusting the landing after any jump or challenge or defeat.
Maybe I learned that lesson long ago—when I was a girl covered in dirt and horse hair and happiness and given the gift of exploration and experimentation with the promise, the faith—from my parents, from my first trainer, from my sisters and teachers and friends and fellow riders—that I’d always be okay, I’d always land.
And if I fell—if I fell, the lesson then is the lesson that still stands now: I’d always be able to get right back up, and ride again.