No. 22: A Yogi’s Journey

Three hundred sixty-five days of yoga stretched not only my body but my mind.

On January 1, 2020, I began a year of daily yoga. The impetus was a promise Keith made to himself, to run every single day. I thought to myself, What can I do every single day that will make me feel good, too? Yoga was the easy answer, and my first session that first day of the year was overlooking the unbelievably picture-perfect crescent-shaped beach Playa Carrizalillo in Puerto Escondido, Mexico.  

At first it was easy. I’ve always had a pretty strong yoga practice and, as a former ballet dancer, am quite disciplined with fitness routines. My body always feels so much better when I’m moving, and so it was no struggle at all—in LA, at least. I would go to Wanderlust for classes with my favorite teacher, Rachel Jackson. I’d practice at home, on the sliver of floor available in our apartment. I had an enlightening private session packed with tweaks and tips from a sought-after yoga guru named Ann when I visited Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort. And I’d feel even more energized and powerful on the days I doubled up and did not only my own vinyasa flow but also took a sweat-soaked Pilates-inspired class at The Studio (MDR)

Traveling generally throws my personal routine into disarray, and that was definitely the case when I headed to Raja Ampat, Indonesia, in late January. Flying itself poses a bit of a conundrum when changing time zones so dramatically. In between long-haul flights I’m always searching for a quiet corner of an airport lounge or gate to do breathwork and a short standing routine so I don’t accidentally miss a day. The fact this trip was onboard a phinisi-style yacht, Prana by Atzaró, proved the biggest challenge. The boat was stocked with yoga mats, but it turns out balancing on a surface that’s constantly in motion is tough. Little did I know those slightly wobbly early-morning sessions on the top teak deck were foreshadowing sensations to come. 

I couldn’t wait to get to Bali, where I’ve always let yoga—and surfing—rule my days. It was actually on the island, one of the world’s most popular wellness destinations, back in 2014, that I discovered what yoga could be. I tucked into the back corner of packed classes at Ubud’s famed Yoga Barn, inches away from verdant jungle flora and all the scents and sounds that go along with them, and felt moved to push my body and mind into new, unexplored places. Next, in Uluwatu, I found great pleasure practicing while I watched surfers riding the swell rolling in beneath the open-air shala of Morning Light, at Uluwatu Surf Villas. Thanks to the energetic instructors, I always left sweaty and serene. On many days during my last stint at home in Padang Padang, Bali, I was attending both their early-morning vinyasa and pre-sunset yin-yasa classes, clocking up to three hours blissed out in my happy yoga zone.   

The irony, perhaps, is that due to COVID-19, I wasn’t able to reach the very place my yoga roots run deepest. And oddly enough, it wasn’t until pandemic lockdowns began that I felt most connected to my resolution. I’d discovered a silver lining.

As studios and gyms began shutting and in-person classes were canceled, some of the most inspiring teachers I’ve met around the world started using Instagram to share their gifts of engaging choreography and wisdom. As I spent the first two months of pandemic lockdown in Kenya with my sister, dad and brand-new nephew, Atlas, I happily tuned in for dynamic flows with Marley Vigdorth in Tampa, Florida, and demanding vinyasas with the contortionist-like Tracy Estefane in Beirut, Lebanon. I did an Earth Day session with my wonderful friend Khat Matias in Bali—virtually, of course. And I caught as many of Rachel’s Instagram Live classes as possible considering the time difference. Ultimately, I took every opportunity on my mat, in the grass, to breathe deeply the fresh air of my lush Nairobi environment. 

In those months, yoga helped give me perspective. It forced me to meditate more, and to spend more time appreciating the beauty around me, the sweetness of life. Even if there were scary things going on around me, I could find moments of peace through my practice. Yoga felt like a potent anti-anxiety medication—a natural salve for the creeping sense of unknown.   

But for all that it brought me in the first half of 2020, my relationship to my practice changed most dramatically in mid-June when I discovered we were having a baby! Of course, intellectually I knew growing a human being changes one’s body and movement in huge ways. But I didn’t understand how it would feel until I was actually experiencing it.

It’s not only in physical manifestations that my practice has changed as I’ve shape-shifted in weird and wonderful ways. Many times over I’ve felt like poses that once took no effort suddenly vanished from my repertoire overnight. I had always thought the best classes were the ones that were most difficult. That the most physically advanced feat was the most impressive. I worked, day after day, to perfect things like feather (pincha mayurasana), handstand (adho mukha vrksasana) and monkey side plank (visvamitrasana)—the types of things that make people ooh and aah on Instagram. Forearm balances were one of my favorite challenges. As my yoga teacher friends in Bali can attest, I frequently requested core and inversions in class. I was so proud of what I perceived as the proof of my strength and flexibility.  

Years ago, on Christmas morning in New Zealand, my knee punched a hole through the wall of our Airbnb because I saw my sister do scorpion pose (vrischikasana) and I thought, I should be able to do that, too. I suppose competition is part of human nature. But I’m learning there are ways to temper that default impulse.

As we know, pride isn’t always a good quality. For me it’s been baby to the rescue. As my physical body has expanded I’ve found ever-evolving limitations in the shapes I’m able to contort into, forcing me to step back from going upside-down, from cracking open my sternum in aggressively heart-opening poses. Meanwhile, my mindset has shifted dramatically. This journey has been humbling. 

I’ve realized that actually, excelling at demanding physical poses is not the point of yoga. Being able to wrap your ankle around an inconceivable body part is not why we practice. And now that I have a watermelon-sized baby stretched across my abdomen, preventing me from folding in half, I understand that humility may have been missing from my practice. I never judged other people’s ability in a class, so why did I feel I needed to look perfect doing it myself? (My ballet training evidently fueled this pursuit.) 

For years I shunned the use of blocks—I saw them as a crutch. But I finally appreciate that using blocks is about support, and now more than ever, I need it and happily receive it. I’ve developed more patience with myself. Instead of letting ambition drive my movement, I strive for the grace to look inward and decide if what I’m about to do will make me feel good or if it’s about vanity. 

I’ve also gained an understanding of restorative yoga, thanks in big part to teacher Lauren Eckstrom’s incredibly holistic and inspiring “Initiating the Mother" prenatal series on Inner Dimension TV. Since I’ve always enjoyed deep stretching, the more intense yin style has long held appeal. But restorative classes often felt so slow and effortless that my old brain, focused on the superficial, translated that to pointless. At six-and-a-half-weeks pregnant, however, I was ordered to avoid moderate to rigorous exercise for six weeks, which threw me for a big loop. 

I imagined I’d be engaged in all my favorite activities throughout my pregnancy, until the very last moment. So unwilling to give up my daily yoga promise, I adopted a super gentle approach: seated sun salutations, yogic stretching and lots of breathing. Restraint and surrender were hard for me at first, but good for my soul. I had to be zen since there was something—someone—far more important than my ego at play. Taking it easy, as I now know, is sometimes the most beneficial thing of all (especially during a pandemic).  

I learned a lesson when I took a Zoom class focused on the splits (hanumanasana)—something I’ve done easily since I was a kid—and afterward couldn’t walk or even stand up without pain for three days, I’d so overstretched my hip flexors. At many points it has occurred to me, I can no longer do this, and it’s absolutely fine. That last part was a bit of a revelation, that doing less didn’t mean I was any less of a person. 

I never thought I’d be doing chaturanga dandasana on my knees, tree pose with my foot on my calf. But here I am, feeling mini victories when I do these modified versions without toppling over. My perspective is different. I don’t fixate on what is beyond my reach. What I can do and can feel is a brand-new life wriggling around inside me every time I settle into a heavily propped savasana, for baby seems to sense my relaxation and find it an opportune time to kick, punch and jab. I relish every single one of these sensations as my belly rolls and peaks in waves with her power. 

I certainly didn’t set out to do 365 days of yoga with the expectation that I’d be waddling around pregnant for half of them. (Embarrassingly, I’m sure I expected to be in enviable shape—six-pack abs, legs of steel—by 2021.) I also didn’t imagine that my practice would be mostly virtual. Ultimately, it couldn’t have been a better year to go deep, to peer within. I have a newfound understanding of my body, and gratitude and respect for it, too. But most significantly I see that what might feel like physical regression can actually move us forward emotionally. Kindness, to others but also to self, has proven to be the most impressive and important ability of all. That’s true out on the road and when we’re sequestered at home, too. Uncertain and frightening as the world is these days, I have no doubt that for my next journey, childbirth, this year of yoga has prepared me beautifully. 

If you’re interested in more travel stories and big ideas around interacting with other cultures and communities, please check out my new podcast, Conscious Traveler. Season one is now available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and more.

Further reading

Lise Grendene’s vibrant, female art–filled London townhouse in Architectural Digest

Explore domestic destinations with cozy cottagecore vibes in Departures