There’s an origin story that many yogis have: there was a first moment, a realization, a falling in love, a desire to shout from the rooftops: “Yoga saved me!”. For me and many others, it’s a fairy tale that begins with a lost soul and ends with being swept off our feet by the magic of this heroic practice. It’s true, too, yoga did rescue me: from anorexia, from anxiety, from social pressure, from fear, from all kinds of things. It still does.
Much like in fairy tales, though, you don’t get the rest of the story. You don’t hear about the part after the celebration when the princess and her rescuer are old marrieds fighting about whose turn it is to do the dishes.
Yoga gives us these beautiful shiny new tools for fixing our lives: breathing techniques, happy hormones, compassion, natural medicine, self-healing and more. Then, some time later, we realize that our lives have not become perfect. We still have grief, we still struggle, we still get sick, we still make mistakes, and we learn that we can’t (and probably shouldn’t) trust everyone, no matter how many downward dogs we do.
Then we are given the gift of a whole new anxiety. The expectations of the life these rescued ones should live is pretty unreasonable. There’s an impression that yogis live in the peak of health by surviving on green smoothies alone, that they abhor hospitals and can deliver babies at home with a great orgasm instead of the pain of labour, and god forbid they should work for money: the yogic fix for being broke is shouting into the ether, “I believe in abundance!”. You start to think your life is really a shambles, that you must have learned nothing, that you are failing at yoga because you can’t fix your broken leg or broken heart through sheer willpower alone, and those shouted affirmations aren’t doing anything for your pain or your wallet.
Luckily, though, the story doesn’t end there, either. Eric Stoneberg, a philosophy teacher from New York, explains that many people enter into yoga the same way I did: assuming that life is a problem, and that yoga can fix it. His lineage (Rajanaka Tantra yoga) picks up where that yoga leaves off, and the practice becomes learning to receive the gift of your life.
In his talks with the Yoga Teacher Academy, he unpacks the word “gift.” Gifts are not always easy to receive. We’ve all gotten the ugly sweater from grandma, and if you’re Wayne Campbell, you could end up with a gun rack.
There is a difference between being given a gift and receiving it. The giver cannot control what happens to the gift once it is given. It could be hoarded, treasured, regifted, recycled, ignored, or turned into something else. The art of receiving does not end with the gift. And we actually already know this: the yoga of receiving is encoded in our DNA.
Stoneberg explains the story he heard in Grade Five about how babies are made. He imitates the narrator of the film they watched in school: “The strongest toughest sperm attacks the egg and the egg that the sperm that is so strong will push through and penetrate and fertilize that egg.” It was understood for a long time that the sperm that won the competition is the one that made the baby.
However, embryologists are learning that this story does not quite check out. As it turns out, there is a communication between sperm and egg, and which sperm “wins” is actually the final decision of the egg. Stoneberg says, “It is the female encoding that chooses what’s going to create life. There is a slight overpreference, there is a slight tipping towards the feminine encoding. The generative encoding of life is generated by the female power. That egg chose the exact sperm of your daddy.” The egg represents the feminine principle, and it shows us that receiving is not a passive experience: it’s an intelligent, generative, creative yes to one possibility that implies millions of other “no”s.
This play of yes and no is something we can do on a yoga mat, a meditation cushion, while washing the dishes and in our relationships with other humans. We knew how to do this yoga from back before we were even embryos. We weren’t waiting to be penetrated, fertilized, or rescued then, so why should we do it now? When I am given the gift of a broken leg, a broken heart, or a gun rack, it’s up to me to decide how to receive it, not to wish it was different. That’s just life, and for now at least, that’s my yoga.