Although I have no statistical evidence to prove it, I'm convinced that when you start practicing yoga and meditation, you invite major changes into your life. Those changes start from within: Maybe your practice alters the way you define personal integrity; maybe it unleashes deep longings in your heart or shows you truths you've been hiding from yourself. Soon, these inner shifts seep into your external life. They make you question the way you do things, and then nudge you to live life differently.
You might notice that your practice has triggered a mysterious process that I call "karmic acceleration." In other words, having a yoga practice tends to speed up the way your relationships and life scenarios play out. Suddenly, instead of putting up with an unhappy relationship or a unsatisfying job for, say, ten years, you may find yourself bulldozing through it in two. And not because you're flakey!
Most of us who practice yoga will at some point find ourselves facing internally motivated choices that could radically alter our lives. That's when we need to know how to bring our practice off the mat so it can help us birth our emerging self—and support us in working with the fear and confusion that change can bring.
I think of all this as I listen to Rita, the 37-year-old owner of a yoga studio in Pennsylvania, who has been contemplating divorce for nearly five years. Her 18-year marriage has long felt emotionally dead. She and her husband rarely make love; much of what they do annoys each other. And their lives don't match: She's a dedicated yogi and environmentalist; he thinks spiritual practice is a big yawn and that climate change is still unproven. It's been years since they talked about anything except household matters and their teenage daughter. Yet to break up the marriage would be to end life as she knows it.
After nearly 15 years out of the mainstream job market, Rita is not sure how she would cope financially, much less run her yoga studio without her husband's support. And then, of course, there is her daughter's wellbeing to consider. So although her gut has been telling her she needs to create a different life, Rita is seized with terror when she thinks about what it would mean to get divorced. And so, she puts it off.
I'm a veteran of several radical life-scenario changes, so it's not hard for me to imagine how she feels. In my mid-twenties, I ended an unhappy marriage; in my late twenties, I left a perfectly satisfactory journalism career and a world of family and friends to live in a spiritual community; thirty years later, I felt called to leave that community, move across the country, and begin an entirely new life. In two of these situations, it took me several years to take the plunge. I wanted to be sure I was doing the right thing—and let's face it, life change is scary, especially when other people's lives are involved and you don't know what is waiting on the other side. Even contemplating a divorce, career change, or cross-country move can bring up core survival fears, which can surface in many ways: as health issues, nightmares, escapist behaviors such as over-eating, lingering indecision, or a counter-phobic tendency to leap out of an old situation without a plan, just to get the whole thing over with.
These core survival fears rise up even when the radical life-change is positive. Stress studies show that "life-enhancing" changes, like getting married, starting a new job, or finally getting a longed-for opportunity, are often just as stressful as negative ones (think of a bride breaking down in tears before her wedding, or the young man who dropped out of a prestigious graduate program at Columbia because he missed his life in San Francisco). In other words, change can be scary even when you've initiated the changes yourself. What if people get hurt? How will you live with yourself if your choice turns out to be a disaster? Do you have the skills to deal with the confusion and chaos of the process? These are some of the questions that paralyze Rita, and they're the kind of questions that will sometimes keep us lingering in stagnant or painful situations until an outside force makes the move for us.
It's yoga—in its widest sense—which gives us the strength and the insight we need to navigate the most radical forms of change. It's not just that yoga offers tools. Even more important than the practices of yoga are some of yoga's basic (and highly applicable) teachings—the recognition that we affect the exterior by working on the interior; that behind the diversity of life lies a fundamental oneness; the knowledge that real strength is found in stillness, and that our true self is not the shifting, fearful egoic person that we sometimes seem to be.
One test of our yoga practice is how it serves us during times of big change. Yogic teachings won't necessarily keep you from feeling scared, overwhelmed, or confused. But they can rise up from within you like a wise friend, to guide you through those feelings so that you don't get lost in them. They can even help you avoid getting mired in indecision, or jumping impulsively without thinking things through.