As a mom of a 13 month old daughter, I’m usually starting to get ready for bed at 9pm. But, last Thursday night, after I left the library at 8pm, instead of heading home for a nightcap and an early bedtime, I drove downtown for a yoga event conducted by Funky Buddha Yoga Hothouse. I used to be an avid member there, and I remain a big fan of their yoga practice, but for many reasons, it doesn’t fit into my lifestyle at the moment. So imagine my excitement when I found out they were hosting a free event at a time where I wouldn’t need to worry about a babysitter. Plus, they really knew how to market it—nighttime, outside, on a bridge, under a LASER SHOW, and of course, FREE. Sign me up.
I’ve been wanting to get back into a yoga practice for a while now, and even more so since recent life events. I like Funky Buddha’s practice of flowing with the breath, changing your movements and holding poses with each inhale and exhale. It really allows me to focus and I love the fluidity of the practice. I was really looking forward to experiencing it again.
When I arrived, the pedestrian bridge was full. There were three long lines of yoga mats stretching the entire length. It was unseasonably warm—82 degrees—but with the breeze off the river, the humidity was barely noticeable (not that it mattered, since Funky Buddha specializes in hot yoga, so many were familiar with practicing in humidity). The sky was pitch black above us; any stars were drowned out by the city’s light pollution. Across the water on the bank of the river, a suppressed bass thumped from music playing outside at the J.W. Marriott hotel, barely discernable over the voices of 400 chatting yogis.
The event coincided with the beginning of what’s called Art Prize here in Grand Rapids, an international art contest that the public can vote on, with a winning jackpot of a couple hundred thousand dollars. Art completely takes over the city, filling every restaurant, every hotel, every grassy knoll, every empty wall.
The only thing there is more of than art is people. Art Prize is often loathed by locals for stopping up traffic and flooding our favorite weekend hangouts with tourists. There are tons of people everywhere all day long, including 9pm on a pedestrian bridge in the middle of the city.
Granted, we all signed up for a unique yoga experience (I did say there would be LASERS), but I’m not sure we all realized the sheer number of Average Joes walking through the practice. Any time I picked up my head in Upward-facing Dog, I was met with shoes and ankles of strangers, and as I held my Downward-facing Dog, I prayed an oncoming bike would not run over my fingertips.
The passersby seemed just as surprised to see us as we were to see them. Many of them felt compelled to shout strange things, mock our posturing, or tell jokes as they walked through 400 chair poses, most likely as a way to cope with the sudden interruption in their Art Prize gazing.
I’ll admit, I was rather annoyed by these intruders. We were trying to have a mindful, focused practice, and they were intentionally trying to screw that up. But if it’s anything I’ve come to realize lately, it was just as much their right to be loud and distracting as it was our right to be deep breathing and posing. We were, after all, in a public space. We had no claim to the space, no more of a right to be there then they did. Why they found it so compelling to be so disrupting, I don’t know, but they were free to be that way if they so wished.*
Now the above rationalization is not typical me. Typical me would clutch onto my annoyance with white knuckles. “Who raised these people to be so disrespectful? What is wrong with the world today that people think this is an appropriate way to behave when people are gathering together for a shared and positive goal? Why is there no common courtesy anymore?” These are the kinds of questions I’d normally fume over silently in my brain.
But if I’ve learned anything in my four years of therapy, it’s that I have absolutely no control over what other people do. I can be upset about it, but that won’t change anything. So why bother being upset about it?
The sooner I came to realize these “trespassers” had just as much right to be there as I did and the sooner I came to realize that I couldn’t control their behavior once they were there, I was able to let go of those destructive, infuriating thoughts. I still noticed the interruptions, but instead of letting them steal my focus, they became part of the experience. Much like the wind blowing off the river and over the bridge, voices, footsteps, bike wheels, dog sniffs all came and went, like part of a musical composition I had never heard before. I never knew what to expect but somehow it all flowed together.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading about meditation and mindfulness lately, because I know many view those ideas as valuable practices in a well-rounded healthy life. In fact, some doctors say they are so valuable, they may even keep cancer from returning. One book I read talked about the intimidation people feel when starting a meditation practice; newbies never feel like they’re doing it right because they can’t “stop thinking.” But meditation is not about stopping thought. Rather, it’s about existing in a moment instead of zoning out, lost in your own thoughts.
At the end of the practice, as we all laid on our backs in shavasana, I became mindful of the moments around me. I felt the hard concrete under my mat, the blackness of the sky above, the soft breeze twisting through my frizzy hair, the thump of strangers’ footsteps, the bright colors of the lasers, the deep breathing of 400 people doing the same thing I was.
It all felt so real and so connected. We were all existing together. We were all equal.
I wasn’t sure what the purpose of meditation and mindfulness would be. But now I realize that, by being truly present, I am much more open to acceptance—of people, of events, of myself.
While I didn’t start this blog post with the intention of relating it back to the #TakeaKnee movement, I can’t help but notice some of the similarities. I don’t want to get up on a soapbox (goodness knows I’m not qualified to talk about minority injustice in this country), but I will say that the greatest part of being an American is our individual freedoms. The ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia was just lifted this week. Women did not have the right to drive; if they drove, they would be fined, FLOGGED, and/or jailed. They still don’t have freedom when it comes to driving; they still need permission from a male relative to drive, and they can only drive within city limits. I love living in a country where I know I have just as many rights as anyone else, where I don’t have to ask permission to do something. And that’s all the NFL players were doing—exercising their right to peacefully protest without having to ask permission. And while I think it’s important to talk about the meaning of that protest and how to move forward from it, I hope people will soon acknowledge that there is no question about whether what they did was right or wrong. They didn’t need to ask permission. It’s their right to do what they want to do.