I like to think of the “om” symbol as the tattoo that got away. I’m inkless and don’t mind being so (giving birth was enough pain for me, thank you very much), but if I were to get a tattoo it would be the mighty aum — that illustrious symbol of the one pursuit I keep coming back to, that steadfast friend that welcomes me to the mat when I am ready and able, or waits with a patient heart while I flail around in confusion, gather my wits about me, and return anew.
There aren’t many other things in my life that can lay the same claim. Sure, I’ve loved french fries since the moment I first laid eyes on one, but I’m not about to get a tattoo of a crinkle-cut Ore Ida. And now even the aum tattoo has become a little too trendy and ubiquitous for my taste (but then again, when you think about it, that’s pretty much the point of a symbol that represents the entire universe).
I started practicing yoga in 1995 at the ripe old age of 19 when my hippie university dance teacher taught the class a vinyasa sequence as part of our daily warm up. I didn’t even know I was doing yoga at the time, but I still remember the unique series of postures, which started with vrksasana (tree) and moved in a graceful symphony through Virabhadrasana (Warrior) I, II and III. I used to practice the same sequence in the blistering heat of my sandy compound in Cameroon while a Peace Corps volunteer, and to this day I believe it single-handedly kept me fit, thin and sane (even if the local villagers took me for a complete lunatic).
My practice gained intensity when I joined the Yoga Teacher Training Program at UC San Diego, which led to a few gigs substituting for teachers in my hometown of Encinitas, Calif. — a world mecca for yoga practice with a studio on just about every block. One particularly memorable class I taught took place during high tide at Swami’s beach (at the base of Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship) and ended with the entire class backed up against the cliff during savasana, the sand flies messing with our meditation and the waves threatening to overtake us all.
My practice lurched off its tracks in dramatic fashion when I experienced three miscarriages in the span of one year. I had been taking rigorous ashtanga-based classes up to four times a week, and even though I knew it was completely irrational and contrary to all scientific evidence, I became convinced that yoga had killed my babies. So I stopped. And then I got pregnant again. And in my second trimester, after I had seen the baby’s heart miraculously beating and his lungs miraculously inflating on an ultrasound, I took my own heart and lungs back to the mat and once again, stayed fit, (relatively) thin and sane throughout my full-term pregnancy. Savasana became far less relaxing with a human being kicking at me from inside the womb, but it was during those nine months that I finally began to understand love, and God, and the true meaning of aum.
Now, four months after the birth of my baby, I can only manage to practice in fits and starts (take your pick of about a dozen different excuses — I’ve got them all covered). My yoga of late has primarily been the practice of focusing my attention on my child, experiencing the present moment in the splash of bath water, an unexpected giggle, the sigh of my sleeping babe. But I will begin a twice weekly class again at the end of June, and I plan to finish the last requirements for my teaching certificate next spring. I’m not sure if teaching is truly my passion, but I like to finish what I start, even if I stop once, twice, three times over. As long as my feet make their way back to tadasana at some point, as long as my hands come together in anjali mudra … well, the stuff in between is yoga, too.
And now, in honor of my renewed vows, a little renewed focus and study:
- New to meditation? Need a refresher? Try a short guided meditation from Mohonk Mountain House and then check out some more substantial tips from Deepak Chopra. For even more in-depth study, visit How to Meditate.
- Once you’ve achieved stillness, bring some movement into your meditation. A Slow Hands practice is a great way to tune into prana, and a walking meditation can sync the breath with each step, making your next walk to the bus stop a transcendent experience.
- Most yoga classes touch on meditation and pranayama (breath work) at least briefly, usually in the form of savasana. But pratyahara, or sense withdrawal — the fifth limb of Patanjali’s eightfold path — is a less common though equally important element of the complete yoga practice, especially in these over-caffeinated times. Yoga Journal has a good introduction to the practice of pratyhara, with an exercise to get you started.
- What’s the opposite of pratyahara? A little quality time with Call of the Valley and this yantra spike mat.
- For some more iPod inspiration, download this fascinatng NPR story about Pierre Bernard, “the Omnipotent Oom, Loving Guru of the Tantriks,” who helped introduce yoga to America.
- This frame-worthy yoga poster (pictured at right) is yours for the taking, provided you have enlargement capabilities and the appropriate printer. And who knows … it might even make for a very lovely tattoo.