I hadn't attended the yoga studio near my home in years. My personal practice had devolved into a series of standing and balancing postures I led for my fifth-grade students during morning meetings. I registered for a class on the redesigned website and wondered what other changes the new owners had made.
Twenty years ago, I taught yoga in this light-filled studio to escape the stresses of new motherhood by dropping into the present moment. I tried to love and accept my own body by teaching others to love and accept theirs. It relieved persistent self-judgment for a day or two.
I kicked off my shoes in the remodeled office, greeted my long-time teacher with a hug, and unrolled my mat next to the far wall. I settled my hips onto a folded blanket and closed my eyes. I was home.
As class started, I opened my eyes to morning light streaming in through the large window on the front wall. Something at the very top of the thick wood framing caught my eye. There, on the right corner, stood a tiny statue of Kwan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion. I recognized her because I had an identical figure poised on the top of my bedroom window at home. She’d been a gift from a friend a decade ago to remind me to be gentle with myself.
The height of a birthday candle, my Kwan Yin stands in long robes, one hand faces out at heart-level, the other holds a vase overflowing with the waters of wisdom and compassion. I smiled to find her at the yoga studio, a reminder to affirm my intentions: no straining to lengthen tight hamstrings, no holding postures past comfort, no grasping for some ideal external shape. Kwan Yin’s location allowed me to see her as I reached up in warrior poses, my own personal warrior of compassion. Did anyone else know she was there?
Newly retired, I attended class almost daily and arrived early enough to claim this position in view of Kwan Yin. In no time, it felt like “my” spot. She watched over me. My heart bubbled in gratitude every time she came into view. Thank you, Kwan Yin. Thank you for gentleness. Thank you for balance between effort and ease. I basked in silent gratefulness.
Over the next few weeks, I rekindled my personal practice. I had new energy for yoga. Despite decades as a teacher, I felt like a beginner. One of my first yoga teachers liked to say, “You never step into the same river twice.” I felt the truth of that adage with every posture. Mountain pose was entirely new territory. Cobra awakened possibility. I discovered new levels of curiosity with every breath, every sensation.
Weeks turned into months, my mind and body relaxed. I was more aware of my internal chatter and simply noticed the old tapes. I remained neutral, detached. I don’t have to believe everything I think. My tight hamstrings spoke to me with every forward fold, but I chose to appreciate my strong bones and muscles as I approached my seventh decade. How long had it taken me to realize there is no winner when I battle myself?
I enjoyed every kind of class, gentle, moderate, vinyasa, yogilates, vigorous, intermediate. It didn’t matter. Students were all ages and shapes. It didn’t matter. Years of comparing myself to some imagined ideal evaporated. Thank you, Kwan Yin. Thank you, Kwan Yin. I felt gratitude for every person in every class. Our attendance kept this little studio going. I overflowed with mercy and compassion.
Then, I entered the studio one morning to find something different. Over the weekend, the window frames had been painted bright white. Gone was the dark-stained oak, but Kwan Yin was still in the same place. Strange. How could they have painted without moving her? I got up to look closer. They got a little paint on her. One side was white. Hmmm...
Oh, I could see now. It was not a statue of Kwan Yin at all, just a u-shaped nail hammered into the top of the window frame to track a long-gone cord. I felt silly and smiled to myself. After class, I told my teacher about my mistake. How I had practiced all these weeks: bowed in dozens of sun salutes to a simple nail, lifted my arms in gratitude to an old piece of metal. How I had felt bathed by the wisdom and compassion of a curved piece of hardware. We laughed at the cosmic joke.
It didn’t matter.
Erik Vance, a science writer who reports on the power of placebo, says we should count ourselves lucky if we are suggestible enough to heal with the help of an inert pill or procedure. I count myself among the fortunate.
I still put my mat in the same place. I bow in reverence, lift my arms in gratitude, and welcome self-compassion. Thank you, Kwan Yin.
About the Author
Linda Castronovo lives and writes in western Massachusetts, ancestral land of the Nipmuc and Pocumtuck People. She makes her home with her husband, a yellow lab, a black cat, and five chickens on a tiny hobby farm with fruit trees, berry bushes, and too many weeds. Nature is still a daily wonder.