Last week I watched a short Valedictorian speech given by an 18 year old High School Senior. I will confess I was skeptical at first. I questioned what wisdom this student could impart on me. Wisdom comes with age and experience after all right? Well as I watched the three minute speech, I realized how wise this student was.
He spoke about how he had spent the last year working incredibly hard to achieve the single goal of becoming Valedictorian and when he learned that he had in fact accomplished that goal he describes experiencing 15 seconds of true euphoria. However, what came next really effected him. Nothing. He explained how in the 16th second he felt nothing. He had worked and sacrificed and he couldn’t figure out why in that 16th second he felt empty. After a bit of soul searching he realized that the feeling of emptiness came from what he had sacrificed along the way in his singular pursuit of this goal; many of the important relationships and deep connections in his life. What he discovered is something that as Yogis many of us know.. that the destination means very little if we do not appreciate the journey to get there and those deep connections with ourselves and others are what create that intrinsic joy we feel along that journey.
In my classes last week as we began to warm up on our backs, I shared this story and message with my students. We flowed through opening sun salutes and I tasked my students with appreciating the Journey… remembering the joy that lives there through cultivating these deep connections with ourselves and others.
The physical asana practice helps reinforce this message just in the nature of it. We do the same poses often many times throughout class, and then sometimes we step back or soften the intensity with the goal of going deeper and moving forward. This practice, just like life, is not linear. This practice is NOT meant to be goal oriented…each movement and breath is important as a collection and the journey of the practice is where the joy is found. Again, it is NOT about achieving a peak pose and sacrificing in order to get there, rather it is the compilation of all the poses strung together (the entire journey) where we find the joy.
On the mat we focused on lengthening and cultivating long lines in the side body from the neck all the way down to the outer edge of the back foot. We lengthened the muscles of the legs and stretched the muscles of the hip. There was a “peak pose” that we were building towards but that was just one moment of the whole practice. As we moved through the exploration of Visvamitrasana (pictured above) and then continued on into pigeon I shared again how our asana practice is the perfect way to connect to this concept. I joked with my students that it would never occur to us to think that if we couldn’t achieve Visvamitrasana pose then our whole practice for the day didn’t matter. They giggled as they realized how silly that concept is on the mat–measuring the whole journey by one pose.
However, off the mat this concept is a little harder to see and embrace. When we set our mind on a goal it can be hard to also appreciate the journey to get there. What this Valedictorian realized is something that few of us ever do… that just moving from goal to goal does not fill us up in the same way as our deep connections through our relationships can. No matter how lofty the goal, the joy is only fleeting and that alone cannot truly satisfy us. Buddhist Psychology describes this at its most extreme as becoming a Hungry Ghost. Just as the joy we receive from our practice on the mat is not dictated by one peak pose, our joy off the mat should not be measured in “peak poses” or “key accomplishments” but rather those everyday moments and connections that with mindfulness bring us intrinsic joy.
Back on the mat as we began to transition into final backbends, I circled back to the idea of 16th second and what it represents. To me it represents the “look back” with regret. whether it was a lack of focus on the mat or in parts of our lives off of it, the hope is to feel joy in the 16th second.
As we settled into Savasana, I reminded them that this part of the practice is very much part of the “15 seconds”. I asked them not to let the mind wander into what was next (the next thing on the to-do list) but rather to stay in the now in order to feel that deeper connection and have it continue on after class (the symbolic 16th second).
As we sat together in a final seated moment of meditation, I thanked them for sharing their joy and mindfulness with me. Then I wished them Joy along all of the “seconds” of their Journey. Namaste.