GROWING UP IN OTTAWA, Canada, I lived an hour from my high school, so I’d often find myself with plenty of time to kill before and after class. The cafe and gym at the neighboring Jewish community center became my home away from home. One day, I watched as this beautiful older woman — in hindsight she was probably about 30 — led a group of elderly students through a choreographed sequence of stretches in the back corner of the gym. Everyone looked relaxed. Some were even smiling as they left, which was enough of a return on investment for me to ask the receptionist what they were doing. “Yoga,” she replied with a shrug. I signed up for the next class.
I still remember walking onto my mat for the first time with socks on, feeling grateful that the teacher positioned us so that we weren’t gazing at our own reflections in the wall of mirrors. Then she said that if all we did was breathe, we were doing it right. Like most newbies, I spent much of my first yoga class looking around, and trying to keep track of which foot was my left and which was my right while attempting to maintain my balance. And yet, as we spent the last moments of class lying still, reaping the benefits of our hard work, I knew immediately that I’d finally found a practice that would sustain me — one I didn’t even know I was looking for. It was so clear to me, as I fully relaxed for maybe the first time ever, that we use our bodies to create space in our minds. For a few minutes I was free from my teenage anxiety and self-consciousness, and softened into a space where all I had to do was breathe.
Like many lifelong students, I went on to teach yoga and meditation. It was a logical progression of my deep admiration for the practice. But, if I’m being honest, the physical benefits, like flexibility, strength, or physical fitness were never enough to keep me coming back for more. The invisible shifts in mind and mood that often leave me in a post-practice state of euphoria are the real draw. It is like a secret recipe for uncovering more meaning and calm and, on the best of days, joy.
One of my favorite poems by the late, mystical Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Mary Oliver, “Instructions for Living a Life,” includes the following three rules:
Tell about it.
In an attempt to never waste good advice, I’m leaning into the third instruction by sharing a tried-and-true movement recipe that doesn’t require any athleticism (trust me), experience, or even a change of clothes. What it does require in order to be fruitful is intention. If you’re new to the practice of intention-setting, try answering the question, “How do I want to show up for my loved ones?” Maybe you’ll come up with something like, “present” or “curious” or “loving” — there are no wrong answers. Whatever rings true for you will serve as your intention for the following movement ritual, as offering that quality to your loved ones means first embodying it yourself.
● Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
● Gently bend your knees to alleviate any pressure in the low back.
● Roll your shoulders up to your ears in a circular motion a few times to adjust your posture.
● Turn your palms to face forward, encouraging a widening of your collar bones, and bring life into your hands by spreading and extending your fingers.
● Release any tension from your face and jaw by gently resting your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
● Close your eyes.
● Take a deep breath in through your nose, and exhale out your mouth. Repeat as many times as desired, sighing as you breathe out if you feel inclined.
● Sweep your arms out and up until your palms meet overhead.
● Blink your eyes open, gently tilting your head back to gaze at your hands.
● Recall the intention you set at the beginning of your practice, and hold it in your mind as you proceed.
● Take a full breath in, extending your fingers even further toward the sky above you.
● As you exhale, start to bow forward, hinging at the hips, releasing your fingers toward your toes (it’s okay if they don’t touch).
● Bend your knees as you linger in this forward fold, gently swaying side to side as if you were a branch being rocked by the breeze.
● Bend your knees even more, perhaps initiating contact between your belly and your thighs.
● Allow your head to hang heavy, with your chin in toward your chest as you slowly roll up to stand.
● Once you’re standing, reassess. If you feel complete you can return to whatever awaits you on the other side. If you’re craving more of a release, move through the series of poses again and again until your nervous system settles.
Whether you’re an advanced practitioner or new to yoga, a simple sequence like the above can be sacred when infused with intention and our full attention. Yoga is meant to be practiced, not performed — like an embodied prayer that uses the body to change the mind.
Jenn Tardif Writer
Jenn Tardif is the founder of the mindful collective 3rd Ritual, a certified aromatherapist, and a writer. A devout student of Taoism, yoga, and mindfulness, Tardif is a firm believer that wisdom lights the path to well-being, and has made a lifelong commitment to share the teachings with anyone curious enough to learn more.
Jessa Carter Photographer
Jessa Carter (she/her) is a multimodal omnidisciplinary artist compelled toward the collapsing of categories, systems thinking, and collective healing. Carter’s work/play traverses ecosystem and egosystem to trace the leading lines of value, ownership, authorship, identity, time, performativity, language, and labor.