By Shelby Palmeri
I can’t physically hold onto it, but it has made a profound impact. I don’t think about it often in the day-to-day, but looking back over the years, it has always been there, my constant.
How did all these years pass by?
Did I ever really choose this or did it choose me?
I lay my dingy outdoor yoga mat down in my big backyard. I’m reminded of my first few months of practicing. Limited by space in the deplorable frat boy style living arrangements of the boyfriend I stayed with nearly every night, I had to seek the solace of their big (dirty) backyard.
Avoiding broken glass, and scattered folding chairs, not bothered by a roommate’s skittish purebred beast of a dog I wanted desperately to befriend, I’d set up in the tall grass.
Yes now I have an outdoor mat, two extra mats just in case, and of course my expensive and on brand everyday mat, the one that lives in my passenger seat or on the floor of my sunroom. Back then, I just had one mat- my first mat, a bright pink thin thing I rescued from a closet in my parent’s house, bought then quickly forgotten.
I’d take it to the flattest spots I could find, hiding myself from the view of any of the rambunctious tenants of that rented residence. I’d practice the little bit I had picked up from YouTube and Google. Child’s pose was nice and easy, throw in a cat, cow or two. It was in these sessions when I realized how far I had to go, realized how much effort it took just to sit in a cross legged position for minutes at a time.
When looking back on what drew me to yoga, it is kind of funny to admit. At that time in my life, somewhere around 19, I was discovering how much I liked getting high, and I was exploring a variety of ways to do so. I remember thinking that maybe yoga would provide me some sort of transcendental experience. Maybe, it’d get me some sort of high.
The more spirituality books I read, the more I became a little obsessed with this idea of enlightenment. It was a totally new concept and one I wanted to conquer. I thought downdog and the Bhagavad Gita would give me the tools I needed to transcend my reality. I would have an edge. I’d go somewhere I couldn’t come back from. I’d be a yogi master, a guru, all-knowing and always Zen.
As the months went by, I kept practicing. My motivations fluctuated. This new connection to my body turned me onto fitness. My obsession became core work and planking. I discovered avocado toast and calorie trackers. I thought little about my spiritual journey and more about my six-pack. I took lots of bad-form yoga selfies, admired how my butt looked in tight leggings.
I kept practicing.
Nearly two years into this relationship with yoga, I had a pretty solid routine. That same boyfriend and I were now living in a spacious apartment, with floor to ceiling windows in the living room that I fell in love with the moment I walked in the door. It was in front of those windows, that I’d lay my mat down every morning, trading plush carpet for the rocky un-mowed lawn of my previous practice space.
By this time, I had all the classic yoga texts, expensive mala beads I never used, and a couple of props and Aztec blankets. I kept them all stacked together near the windowsill along with my succulents and occasionally my slinky cat. I loved my little yoga space.
One morning, I woke up to practice. I spent about twenty minutes moving by body then rested it on the floor. I lay in corpse pose as the sun filtered through the blinds, casting shadows and warming my face.
A few hours later, as I sat on the couch in that same living space, the sun casting shadows on the wall, my boyfriend killed himself in our bedroom.
I, traumatized and grieving, kept practicing.
I forgot about enlightenment. I forgot yoga body. My motivation became healing. My mat caught all my tears; my journal caught my frustrations. I spent hours and hours on the floor in meditation, hoping that maybe I’d be able to feel him. I read more books. I looked for signs. I explored the metaphysical. I survived the unthinkable.
And, I kept practicing.
Years have passed since that day, as have many milestones. I graduated college, moved away from home, fell in love again, went through teacher training. Through it all, my mat has been underneath me. I unroll it in happiness and in times of struggle. I’ve unrolled it on sandy beaches, rock ledges, and countless studio floors. I’ve unrolled it by trickling rivers, near bubbling hot springs, and in airport terminals.
Over the years, I’ve had to wonder if it is the exercise, the healing or the distant and mysterious possibility of enlightenment that brings me back? Maybe it’s all three, and maybe it’s a whole lot more.
As I lay my outdoor mat down on this warm and sunny summer day, the dirt smells the same as it did so many summers ago in that distant backyard that was much less mine than this one. The wind ruffling the trees sounds the same, and extended child’s pose is just as soothing.
I think about all the things that have changed in my life in such a short time. And I think about all that’s stayed the same.
I keep practicing.
Shelby Palmeri is a registered yoga teacher living in Colorado, trying to chase the dream of teaching yoga and writing. She enjoy mountains, music, and craft beer.
THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND