A funny thing happened on my way to yoga class on Christmas Eve a few years back. After 10 years of taking yoga classes, I practiced yoga for the first time.
As I drove to the yoga studio, I mentally refined my newly acquired ability to kick up into handstand, after years of futile attempts. I thought ahead to the oyster stew my visiting mother and I would make for Christmas Eve dinner. And I mapped out my yoga schedule for the rest of the week.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a large truck run a red light and then hurtle through the intersection toward me. I tried to turn to avoid it, but he was coming too fast.
As the grill of the truck neared impact, I didn’t think of death. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. I didn’t think of loved ones I’d never see again. I thought, instead, of how this would affect my yoga practice.
Without planning it, without realizing it, yoga has begun to define me as a person. I started my practice 14 years ago, as a complement to my running program. Over the years, as my priorities and physical capabilities shifted, so did my practice. Before I knew it, I was immersed in a dedicated Power Yoga practice 5 days a week.
I was not an athlete as a child. I wasn’t on sports teams and I’ve never done a cartwheel. Learning over the past few years that even this fifty-something body could balance in side crow has been an enlightening experience. I have strength in my upper body for the first time in my life. I can focus on my breath in the most difficult of positions.
The truck crashed into the driver’s side door with a powerful force and then the world slowed down. My car spun around for what seemed an eternity as a thunderstorm of glass pellets rained over me. When the car came to a stop, I was pinned inside, my seat now wrapped around me, the door caved in on my left side.
My left shoulder hurt—I knew something was terribly wrong. I was covered in glass. I was scared and I was shaking, but I didn’t panic. I remembered what my teachers say to us in class everyday: breathe.
So I breathed.
As I waited for the ambulance, I thought. “breathe.” As the firefighter climbed in next to me and held my hand while they used the jaws of life to pull the car door off, I thought, “breathe.”
As they cut off my clothes and slipped a neck brace on, I thought, “breathe.” While they gently pulled me onto the hard plastic board and taped my head to it, I thought. “breathe.” When, during each of these moments sharp pain shot through my body, I thought, “breathe.”
In the ambulance, after taking my vitals, the EMT remarked that they were healthy for someone just getting out of bed, much less after being pulled from a totaled car. I smiled and told her about yoga.
Our teachers tell us that how we deal with challenging moments on the mat is a reflection of how we deal with the challenges we face in life. I hear that in class nearly every day, but on Christmas Eve, I finally got it.
Yoga has taught me one thing I know for certain: when your world turns upside down, all you have to do is breathe.