I’m the oldest of four boys. My next brother – Josh – is about 3 years younger. When we were kids I made him go everywhere with me. My parents like to remind us that he even sat on a stool next to me when I went to take a poop. I really didn’t like being alone.
For many years it felt necessary to have someone with me for everything – working out, going to dinner, seeing a movie, travel, and yes, in the beginning, even practicing yoga. It didn’t occur to me to undertake these activities on my own.
Then, somewhere in my mid to late 20’s, it became clear that I wasn’t always going to have someone to accompany me and that maybe it was OK to do these things alone. What?!?!? ALONE!? It still felt weird to just pick up and go. There was a hesitation, a search for someone to come along and a fear of what others would think. During my doctorate at UMass I got a bit more brave. I did more things on my own, but much of it centered around study and dissertation writing in cafés and coffee shops. Nothing too crazy.
Next came my move to Manhattan. I remember walking down the street in Chelsea (back when it was gay) excited to explore the city, yet apprehensive about being alone. I shared a small one bedroom apartment with my friend Sarah and it became pretty clear pretty quick that there’s a reason New York is the city that never sleeps. Everyone is so crammed into small spaces that you’ve got to get out and about or you’ll lose your mind. So, I did, but then I made friends fast and managed to maintain a pretty high level of companionship.
Then I was sent abroad by my employer – alone. Traveling alone seemed so daunting, especially to a foreign country. I remember arriving in Amsterdam where a driver picked me up to take me to my hotel and feeling so relieved to not have to sort it out on my own. But, then, he left me and I found myself turning circles in this tiny room debating whether to venture out and where to go. So, I carved out enough space for my yoga mat and did a short asana practice (side note, I think Amsterdam and Geneva are home to some of the smallest hotel rooms in the world, aside from Hong Kong. In Geneva I regularly had to put furniture on the bed just to make room for my yoga mat – tiny!). Somewhere toward the middle my anxiety abated and by the end I felt at ease with the urge to go out and explore. I did and I loved it. It was such a thrill to be ambling about this beautiful city where I knew no one and no one knew me. I felt more free than I’d ever felt in my life. I was hooked.
In the years since I have traveled the globe on my own and learned quite a bit about life, myself, others and our environment in the process. I’ve grown to relish the solitude and independence. I process all of it through my yoga practice. Over the years my practice has guided me into a more purposeful and positive relationship with myself. I have come to realize that none of it is actually separate from me. All of it happens from within. The practice has a way of creating true independence – dependence inward you could say – and in doing so brings an freedom.
Recently in my Buddhist practice I came across this line: “Enlightenment is self-aware and thus utterly independent of external conditions…” (Tara’s Triple Excellence – Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche). It was a moment of realization. Our opportunities for deepest connection and greatest clarity come not from outside, but rather inside when we are able to resist the clinging to the world around us and abide within – observing the world with an easy clarity.
Yoga Sutra 1.3 says “tada drastr svarupe avasthanam” – then the seer abides within his own essence. That essence is the heart of who we truly are – something beyond this external material world. Sometimes it just takes pushing past a perceived barrier, like being alone, to experience this abiding and become independent. This is how we can cultivate a happiness that is all our own.