My friend Sarah is one of those rare humans for whom the phrase “cool as a cucumber” was undoubtedly invented. After we first met nearly ten years ago, I was in awe of her near-constant composure in the face of school drama – finals, frenemies, fluctuations in every arena. It wasn’t that she didn’t care. She simply seemed impervious to the emotional complications of living with which I was so familiar. Her mind appeared uncluttered, and she was unabashedly herself while those around her conducted awkward experiments in identity and life.
We’ve kept in touch irregularly over the years, and several months ago we grabbed coffee after a long time apart. I hardly recognized her. She had gained several pounds and looked exhausted. She told me that her corporate job was overwhelmingly stressful, and that she was having health issues. She was struggling with insomnia and panic attacks, and didn’t see an easy way out.
I listened sympathetically as I remembered my own post-college adventure. As my three-year experiment in Corporate America and New York City was coming to an end nearly two years ago, I was a mess. I had lost twenty pounds, was coming down with fevers every few weeks, and had an injury that was so aggravated that I couldn’t walk without sharp pain and sciatica. I’d stand up from the ground and become so dizzy that I couldn’t see, and was having panic attacks that left me jittery and emotional for days. I wasn’t the only one, of course – several of my young colleagues were taking anxiety medications and sleeping pills.
What sustained me during those three years and during the year of healing that immediately followed were my yoga and meditation practices. Each day after work, I’d collapse onto my mat, and move as much as my body allowed (often, it was simple restorative postures on my back for an hour). Each morning, I’d sit in meditation and meet myself – the stress in my body, the fearful thoughts – and emerge with a deep knowing that life was fundamentally harmonious and trustworthy. I’d enter work with a calm mind and faith that the present moment would provide refuge throughout the day.
As I was uncertain what to do toward the end of my time there, I took medical leave from work, and slowly came to the conclusion that even if I had no idea what to do with my life and was without backup plans, I had to leave. During a pivotal encounter with the wonderful yoga teacher Leslie Kaminoff, Leslie told me (in the context of yoga practice and my desire to “get it right,”), “Francesca, what’s right is what doesn’t hurt you.” I gave my two weeks notice at Google two days later.
This story isn’t to suggest that those with corporate jobs should all pack their desks and become yoga and meditation teachers. I have friends who love the high-speed corporate environment, and who have found positions that are meaningful and rewarding. While the corporate structure was a poor fit for my temperament and interests, still I received a precious education during my time there. That being said, I did leave with a tremendous appreciation for the mind-body connection, and firsthand understanding of the impact of stress on the body-mind. Even more powerful, though, is the conviction that yoga can support, sustain, and heal.
Yoga practice is not a panacea, of course – if practiced without kind and wise attention, it can most certainly cause or exacerbate pain in the body, just as meditation practiced without sage guidance can increase imbalances. Still, I can say with absolute devotion that yoga has saved me during very trying times. And after emerging deeper and stronger, I know that continued practice will provide me that life raft during future storms. The timeless teachings of authentic yoga are reliable medicine for what ails us, in body and mind.