I’d like to tell you that sitting there sobbing on my basement steps changed me lightning bolt style, but the recalibration of my priorities happened gradually. Daily, in fact, on my yoga mat.
Yoga and me, we go way back—ten years to be exact. I started practicing after I began my own marketing business for colleges and universities. That year, my mother sat me down in a Starbucks and said she was worried that I was neglecting my family. She didn’t know I was also having three-day migraines and stomach problems that laid me out for a week. Those stress-induced bouts of sickness were my only break from the demands of my clients. As one university vice president—who’d taken to emailing me at 11:00 p.m., knowing I’d get right back to him—put it, “I’ve never met anyone so responsive.”
Back then, I needed my clients’ approval like I’d needed a gold star from my ballet teacher when I was five-years-old. Only the stakes were higher now. I’d set aside my novel writing aspirations to help support my family. My husband was in the middle of launching his own consulting firm. My kids were six and nine. The freelance side gig I’d started while earning my MFA in creative writing had momentarily become our sole support. As a fiction writer, I knew how to craft a story, and I’d cottoned onto a fresh way of reaching prospective students and donors that these universities had never considered. My work became my main creative outlet. Maybe my fiction wasn’t selling, but my stories for clients were going like hotcakes.
Seemingly overnight, I was in the enviable position of having more work than I knew what to do with. My solution was to do it all.
I trained my children not to interrupt me when I was on a conference call in my home office, snapping my fingers at them as they stood at the crack in the doorway dutifully waiting for me to finish. Too stressed to eat, my clothes grew baggy, which I saw as a bonus. Now I was ultra skinny without even trying. Plus I was making good money, so I could afford a new wardrobe. Go me! One Sunday morning, I emerged from my office, climbed the basement steps and found my husband cleaning up the breakfast dishes. The ritual pancakes had been eaten; the kids were dressed and ready to go to the zoo. No one had consulted me on the plan for the day. No one had even asked if I wanted a pancake. They’d simply left me alone because that’s what I always seemed to want. I sat down on the stairs and sobbed, “It’s like you forgot I even live here.”
Maybe I was the one who’d forgotten where I lived.
Even then, if you’d asked me what was most important to me, I would have said, “That’s easy. Family. My writing.” One of my biggest fears was looking up someday and finding myself old without a book to my name. Yet I’d also been taught that the joys of life were a reward reserved for after your work was done. I was striving to deserve time with my family, time to write. As a result, I rarely had either.
I’d like to tell you that sitting there sobbing on my basement steps changed me lightning bolt style, but the recalibration of my priorities happened gradually. Daily, in fact, on my yoga mat. I can still see the yellow flyer advertising a week of hot yoga for $20 with the claim: “Three days a week will change your body. Five days a week will change your life.” I didn’t know what that change would look like, but I knew I needed it. So I took up the 90-minute, sweaty practice obsessively (my approach to everything).
Yogis sometimes say the practice works you as much as you work the practice, and that was definitely true for me. After a couple of months, I noticed I was bounding out of bed in the morning for no other reason than that I felt good. My body wasn’t just skinny; it brimmed—energetic, mischievous, flirty, powerful. My husband noticed. I noticed him back. For the first time in a long time, client emails could wait.
I’m a yogini and a creative writer, I thought. That’s the real me. I’ve found my bliss. The problem was, my bliss wasn’t going to pay for my kids’ college tuition.
Three years into my practice, life had gained the sunbaked deliciousness of showering and slipping into a sundress after a long day at the beach. Walking my towheaded son to school was such a regular giggle fest that a dog walker we often passed called out one day, “You two are just too happy to be on your way to school.” Playing my edge in dancer’s pose and flying back from crow reconnected me to that unbridled spirit within—a driving force that had been there all my life, pushing me to write. It drove me back to my own stories, which became my first published essays.
But here’s where I had to pull on the reins.
Once I saw what life could be like with more energy for family and my creative writing, toiling in my basement producing client work lost its appeal. Everything seemed to trump that work: sitting on the couch enjoying a Harry Potter movie with my son and daughter, taking a long walk with my husband and our dogs, writing my own essays. By then, I spent most days in yoga pants, and resented having to put on pantyhose, suits, heels, and a wide gold bracelet to hide the inner wrist tattoo I’d recently gotten. I even began to wonder if I should chuck the business I’d worked so hard to build. I’m a yogini and a creative writer, I thought. That’s the real me. I’ve found my bliss.
The problem was, my bliss wasn’t going to pay for my kids’ college tuition.
And when I thought about leaving my professional life, I also wondered who I would be if I didn’t get to put on my pretty clothes and be “the marketing expert.” My clients had always loved how committed and passionate I was about the work I did for them—and I loved their praise. Wasn’t that passionate brand strategist also the real me?
I was struggling—not for lack of discipline, but rather because I was adjusting to a new internal compass. Pre-yoga, external approval was the carrot that drove me. Post-yoga, I’d learned to pay attention to my internal bliss: my family, my health, my personal writing. But as I was beginning to learn, my bliss was not my only driver.
Yoga teachers are fond of asking students to notice their yoga M.O., the similarities between the way they practice and the way they live in the world. Distracted on your mat? Thinking about the next pose instead of the one you’re in? Pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion? Chances are you are distracted, rushing ahead, and depleted outside the yoga room, too. On the mat and in the world, I’m a hard worker. I like to feel powerful and strong. I like to see results and I’m willing to work for them. It took me four years to learn to do a headstand, and I know myself well enough to know that I would not feel so victorious if it had been easy. Nor would the poses I love be as freeing without the complement of the ones that are more challenging. And getting my memoir published this year wouldn’t be as delicious to me if I hadn’t pushed myself to produce it alongside my client work.
So, as much as we’re told to try to engineer our lives for maximum joy, yoga has also taught me the advantage of doing what I think I don’t want to do. “The pose doesn’t begin until you want to come out of it,” my teachers say, usually when I’m holding warrior two, sweat dripping into my eyes, encouraged to bend my knee even deeper, quadricep on fire.
But understanding this intellectually does not make the tug-of-war between what my husband likes to call the “have-to’s” and the “get-to’s” any easier. Not until very recently, anyway, when I encountered a challenge that made me see things differently.
I was scheduled to present a new brand campaign to a university board of trustees—a collection of CEOs with recognizable names, heading up the companies whose Super Bowl ads we all watch. I’d already been warned that this demanding group railed against the last brand campaign. It was due to be one of the highest stakes presentations of my career. I’d spent weeks not wanting to make it—hoping a colleague would be tapped as the more appropriate choice. But in the end, it was my project and they wanted to hear it from me.
A few days before the meeting, I was on my yoga mat, pushing up into my eighth wheel pose when my teacher said, “The pose you don’t want is the one you need.” I’d learned from experience that she was right. I’d learned to trust that the challenge that showed up on my mat was just what I needed to deepen my practice. And that day, I wondered: What if I trust that the presentation I’m dreading is just what I need in my career? That this is the perfect client for me to be working with right now in order to advance? In that moment, my anxiety converted to excitement—eagerness, even—to test my boundaries. I don’t back off from handstand because I know that even if I fall, trying is the only route to ultimate success. I also know there’s nothing like that moment when I succeed. Why would I back off from an opportunity to see just how far my expertise could take me?
When I finally stood before those forty CEOs in my blue sheath dress, jeweled necklace, wrist tattoo hidden with a cuff bracelet, my words were practiced and polished. Yet I felt stripped down, more exposed than usual as they waited for me to speak, because I wasn’t performing for them. I was pursuing my own edge. I didn’t bring them a fancy presentation. I brought them a story—a story of sacrifice and heroism, of patriotism and altruistic youth. I brought them the story of the institution they love in a way they hadn’t heard before, a way that, as it turns out, hushed the room, captivating them.
Through posing on my mat, I’ve discovered the difference between what is imposed upon me and what I impose upon myself, and I’ve become responsive in a new way. Yes, my client work takes time, but it empowers me, channeling my creative energy while my personal work lets it run free. Balance is usually what people say they’re seeking through yoga, but I have found something else: flow. My yoga practice, my professional work and my creative writing are irrevocably yoked together. I’m no longer driven by what others expect from me but rather, I’m the driver. I’ve hitched my wagon to these horses, leaning right, then left, then center, driving hard, urging each in its turn to take me to my own true North.
Andrea Jarrell’s essays have appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column; Narrative Magazine; The Washington Post; The Huffington Post; Brain, Child Magazine and many other publications, anthologies and sites. Her memoir “A Measure of Desire” is forthcoming from Booktrope.