“No mud, no lotus.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk

Last summer, I went through a horrible time personally, and rather than deal with the painful feelings, I chose distraction, busying myself and cramming my calendar full. I focused on powering through and getting things done. As a coping mechanism, initially, this seemed to work quite well. I had no time to dwell on things that were uncomfortable.

However, the darkness I had refused to acknowledge didn’t give up so easily. I felt constantly on edge. I’d wake up worrying about my to-do list, with a gnawing fear in my stomach that I wouldn’t be able to get everything done. I was being gradually swallowed by anxiety, and yet I was so disconnected from myself that I didn’t even notice it until a doctor said, “It sounds like you’re feeling anxious.” She was right.

(Related article: 3 Ways to Stop Anxiety With Yoga.)

Determined to “fix” myself, I turned to Forrest yoga. Forrest is a style of yoga that emphasizes an intense physical practice with an introspective focus. The practice aims to clear physical and mental blockages in order to help you find lightness, ease and freedom.

I essentially decided to throw nine days and a significant amount of money at “the problem,” which was my mental health. If I’m honest, I also thought this advanced yoga teacher training course would be really, really hard, which fitted with my desire to “punish” my negative feelings away.

The Nine Days

My approach to starting the course was exactly that: self-punishment. The physical practices were long and fiery, but I refused to back off from the intensity of the poses. I was intent on forcing myself to feel better. Every time I found something challenging, I’d try to fight my way past it. I didn’t want to explore it or learn from it, I just wanted to push through.

I hadn’t done much Forrest yoga before, and I struggled. I convinced myself that I wasn’t good enough, not disciplined enough, not prepared enough. I spent my evenings reading my training manual, desperately trying to glean some knowledge that would help me feel less useless the following day.

But it didn’t work. After two long days of fighting myself and my situation, I felt exhausted. I knew I wouldn’t give up, but I was very worried about the state I'd be in by the end.

It’s hard to say what changed exactly, but on day three, things I wrote in my journal included “less fighty," “more softness” and “more depth.” Something clicked, and I realized I could make the choice to be at ease. In my physical yoga practice, I’d learned how to soften into intense sensations, and yet I hadn’t integrated that learning on a mental or emotional level. Allowing myself to lean back into whatever I was feeling was strange, but liberating.

The Breakthrough

“Healing can only happen in the present, not the future.”

~Sandra Robinson, Forrest yoga guardian

I recognized my habitual tendency to push through the present in order to get to a better future. Instead, I made it my intention for the rest of the training not to strengthen my core or burn away pain, but simply to stay attentive and present, receptive to all sensations, feelings and emotions that came up.

(Practicing Aparigraha (Non-Attachment) is how we can let go of our expectations of the future and focus on the present.)

I’ve always feared that by accepting the present, I’d lose my edge. Perhaps I’d lose my motivation to improve, or maybe I’d forget all the things I need to remember to do. However, when I gave it a try, the opposite happened. By allowing myself time to be present, and to tune into my body’s wisdom, I found answers to questions I didn’t know I’d been asking. I felt more connected to friends and family, despite being further away from them at the time. I released old self-limiting beliefs. Focusing on the present eventually gave me clarity about my desired future. The difference is that I no longer felt rushing and urgency toward it. Instead, I sensed my innate power to welcome more of whatever I want into my life by being more present, more at ease and more connected.

Gift of Growth

Perhaps the biggest thing I realized is that it’s all a process. There will always be more to learn. To be alive and to grow is a gift. But that growth can come from a place of already being enough.

If, like me, this is a lesson you have to learn again and again and again, then stay attentive and give yourself the space to do that. It’s only when you let yourself feel the full spectrum of emotion -- the light and the dark -- that you realize that things can be different. The worst thing you can do is squash it down. Being sad, hurt or angry doesn’t stop you from feeling sparkly and alive; if anything, it fuels it. Embrace the process. Walk in beauty.

(Continue reading in How 500 Hours of Yoga Teacher Training Changed Me.)