Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned on My Mat
By: Mary Von Ahnen, Owner, Horizon Hot Yoga
I’m sure most people remember the iconic book that came out in 1990 All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I have my own take on this. My yoga practice has taught me so much about how to live…how to treat myself and others. I gathered up all the big lessons yoga has taught me and found my favorite cliche sayings to attach to them.
“Be where your feet are.”
My yoga practice has helped me learn to live in the present moment. It works like this for me when I’m in the room: I’m sweating my tail feathers off. I’m trying to remember that if I don’t breathe, I will not live through the class. My muscles are on fire because the teacher has held us in triangle posture for at least 30 minutes. (Well, it feels like that.) It is impossible for me at this moment to think about anything else. Even in Savasana, where it’s easy for my mind to wander, I make a very conscious effort to just feel my breathing. And after an hour of being in the present, I feel so much joy. If I take this to a life lesson, everything can become a yoga class. The activity I am engaged in at the moment is the only thing that matters. If I choose to live that moment fully, miracles happen. If I am always somewhere else (in the future or the past), it is easy to blow by the small things that can become the big things. Life becomes so much richer when I’m living in the present.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
This has an interesting connotation given I take very hot yoga classes! There are always minor annoyances that hit me in the yoga room. (Someone got my favorite spot in the room… Disaster! The teacher didn’t turn on the fans when it got really hot… I may not survive! The line for the showers is long…How did everyone beat me to it when I have to get to the most important meeting of the week FAST? Etc.) But the fact of the matter is that the people with whom I practice yoga are my friends and the teachers are my friends. It just doesn’t fit with my yoga practice to let small things get under my skin. If I take this to a life lesson, and I strive to care about everyone with whom I come into contact with like I care about my fellow yogis, I can let anything go and know people are just doing the best they can. I probably achieve this state of “wearing life like a loose garment”…a favorite expression of a dear friend…about 30% of the time. But the more I make the effort, the better I feel, and the better I feel, the more I want to let things go.
“Your momma doesn’t work here.”
We get pretty messy in a hot yoga session. Sweat creates puddles. Used towels are lying around. Blocks get sticky and messy. We all have to clean up after ourselves so that our yoga “home” stays nice for all of us who share it. We can’t leave it to the teacher. It feels good to do my part to respect the space. If I take this to a life lesson, it’s not just about cleaning up after myself in common areas. It also becomes about living my life in a way that is orderly so that no one has to clean up after me. I do the things for which I am responsible, so that I can enjoy my life and keep the “space” in it that I share with others acceptable to them.
“Practice makes perfect.”
It’s called a “yoga practice” because you do it over and over again and see the results. Your body changes, you become calmer in life, you enjoy things to the fullest. You choose to practice on any given day, whether you feel like it or not, because you are committed, and you like the results you get. If I take this to a life lesson, the need to practice to get better at something is true of pretty much everything we do. I have a tendency in life to want to be expert at something before I have really put in the effort necessary to gain that experience. This of course never works out for me. Sooner or later, I realize I missed a step (multiple?) because I didn’t put in the effort to build the foundation on which the “expert” level must sit. I always have to remember that if I really want the results, whether that’s a great yoga class, or a promotion at work, or a lasting marriage, I have to keep giving it effort.
“Don’t worry about what others think.”
I am astonished on a regular basis at the people who come to the studio who have never done a yoga class, and they dive in with no fear. It has taken me a long time in the yoga room not to crane my neck around to see what my neighbor is doing and subsequently feel a bit of pride or a bit of shame. As a beginning yogi, I could not be good at all the postures. (In fact, I was bad to mediocre at most of them.) Over time, with the help of a lot of patient instructors, I started to see that trying to impress others, or caring if they thought my posture were good or bad, was missing the point of yoga. My time on the mat was to be about exploring my mind and body, doing my personal best, and enjoying the effort. When I finally turned the corner, I felt freed. And as I’ve gotten older and had health issues requiring a lot of modifications to my yoga, I’m so grateful that I do what I can do without worrying about what others are thinking. If I take this to a life lesson, I realize that my whole life, I have burdened myself with needing to be good at something before I would feel comfortable participating. This meant missing out on all kinds of activities I could have done just for the fun of it…not because I had demonstrated competence. Yoga has helped me get comfortable with jumping into many things for pleasure, for the challenge of it, or because it could better my life. I find myself wanting experiences that are outside of my comfort zone, or for which I have no natural talent, because they deepen my life, help me build confidence, and especially, shut down the judgmental voice that can dominate my thinking.
“It’s a journey, not a destination.”
In the first few years of my yoga practice, I took a lot of classes and saw great improvement in my physical expression of the postures. I got cocky. “I’ve got this.” Then I had to have several foot surgeries, and I got diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. All of a sudden, I was back to square one. I was discouraged. I couldn’t do even basic things that I had mastered in my first year of yoga. But I kept at it, and the yoga healed me. I realized over time that my yoga experience was not going to culminate in an “arrival”. I was going to work on it for the rest of my life and enjoy the process. I still can’t do the things I could in those early years, but now I am grateful that I get to be in a yoga room, and I take it as it comes. If I take this to a life lesson, I am always on a journey. I have always been goal-oriented, and while I don’t think it’s bad to have goals, I have held these goals up as the “arrival point” for my life at the time. Unfortunately, there’s a whole lot of life that happens while in pursuit of goals. If my eyes are only on the destination, I only see the journey as a necessary evil to be endured as I reach my goal. I do not see it for its own wonders.
“To thine own self be true.”
This summarizes all the lessons. Yoga as a practice is rooted in this concept. Every great teacher from whom I have ever had a class encourages me to do what I can do…strive for my own personal best, but no more. Yoga teaches us to connect our minds and bodies. We have to respect our limitations of the day but push ourselves to our edge. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. And by the same token, it is my job to let others be true to themselves. Judgment has no place in the yoga room. If I take this to a life lesson, it works the same way for me. I have role models I learn from. I strive to do my best and live my values. I try never to let others push me to do things that don’t feel right for me. And it’s ok for me to let others do what they need to do, without my advice or interference.
I am so grateful that I have a yoga practice that is with me on and off the mat. I continue to learn how to live a better life through the lessons I learn in the yoga rooms.
Bio and Contact Information:
Mary Von Ahnen was in corporate leadership positions for more than 25 years and recently retiring as the CIO at Fossil. She has also held leadership roles on many non-profit Boards. Mary and her husband Mike own Horizon Hot Yoga in Frisco, which offers Ashtanga, Rocket Yoga, Vinyasa, Hot 26, and other types of yoga.