Where is Your Peak Yoga Experience?

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Triumphant as it may seem, the vast internet array of photos depicting every budding yogi's best arm balance is misleading. Assigning these images to the epitome of yoga detracts from the real draw and glory of yoga, which actually takes place outside the practice ritual.

In the 1960's, an American psychologist named Abraham Maslow put forth the theory that people enjoy "peak experiences", heightened moments in life where we feel in harmony with ourselves and our surroundings. He maintained two key findings: First, that these experiences happen in the seemingly most commonplace events and surroundings. And second, that the healthier we are, the more frequent such episodes occur in the course of daily living.

Last month, I had the pleasure of teaching a workshop on the "Fundamentals of Therapeutic Yoga" at a renowned holistic retreat center. The format requires an unusually accelerated process. Participants drop some considerable cash and suspend their lives for five days of renewal and transformation. The itinerary entails both a morning and afternoon session, totaling five hours of scheduled time per day. And then there are many more hours of elective options to choose from.

What proved to be the most challenging aspect was addressing the expectation that our time together was going to provide them a "peak experience", that something would happen to forever alter the situation they had temporarily left behind. This is often the same in standard yoga classes as well but the sentiment is greatly amplified in the "intensive" setting. Notions of a gradual progression, small changes having the biggest impact, and simple being deeper, easily seem unsatisfying when we are faced with immediate difficulties, and don't readily compete with the prospect of a magical answer or the allure of a black light and some pumped Radiohead.

Given my viewpoint in yoga (see When Yoga Empowers), I am expressly not interested in providing anyone a peak experience. I want people to have some information and learn techniques that they can utilize. I am hoping to facilitate practice that illuminates our interconnectedness and inherent beauty. But the fruition of that effort, the "peak" if you will, wants to happen not in my class or even in practice but rather in the natural context of our relationships. And when the time came for me to part ways with my new friends from the workshop, there was a clear split between those who were looking forward to returning home and those who seemed to dread it.

I was profoundly encouraged to receive an email from one participant who was of the former category. He described the first day following the workshop, starting with a new fuller experience of breath and pleasure in his simple morning practice. Then he wrote about spending time with his wife and daughter:

"We were happy just being all together. It was family day like we have not yet had. It poured rain all day but we didn't even notice. This went on from about 11am-6pm, and then my daughter fell asleep in the 10 minute drive home. Now, her worst moods tend to happen when she is woken prematurely from slumber. This, combined with the tiredness and some hunger....well, she went off. For over an hour. Screaming. Very very loudly. For over an hour.

I hung in, I hung in. I retreated to the basement and my wife took over. I breathed. I felt my anger rise. I ran up the stairs, and stopped myself. No, you're angry. Don't go up if you're angry. I allowed my anger, and the anger passed. Then I felt a pang of despair. I thought: 'Today, I was literally the best me I could possibly ever be and my daughter is, at this moment, screaming as if being burned in hell.'

And then I took a breath, and I knew exactly what to do. I grabbed a candle and a stick of incense. I lit the candle and entered her room where she was screaming on the floor with my wife at her side. She saw the candle and immediately went silent. I sat next to her and asked her to hold it, and keep the flame steady. She did. And how still she was.

But none of us knew what to say. I certainly didn't. So I breathed. Deep and long breaths. With some sadness cracking the breaths at times. My wife breathed to. After a few minutes, my daughter joined in. Our eyes met and she smiled at me. Thankful for the relief. The simple power of it."

The appreciation he felt during his "family day they had not yet had", and the inner space to overcome the torrent of his daughters night terrors in the way he did, are examples of peak yoga experience, in both celebratory and trying circumstances. If only there were a way to post on our Facebook timelines an image that might capture the sentiment of my friend with his family, with his daughter, and the candle, and the knowing look she gave him.