We all have a story to share and lessons learned. This is the story of Shelby Sih, a rising senior studying Communications, Political Science and and Global Social Entrepreneurship at Northeastern University. In her spare time, Shelby is an evolving yogi and yoga instructor in Boston, serves as Editor-in-Chief for Woof Magazine, and as the Mission and Mentor Development Coordinator for Strong Women and Strong Girls at NU.
By finding parts of ourselves in others, we can begin to know how small our world really is. I enjoy learning from and seeking inspiration from Shelby, and hope you will enjoy her story as well.
“True surrender requires an opening of the heart to the unknown.” – Gurmukh Khalsa
Surrender to the present moment. Surrender to what is. Surrender. These are phrases I have heard countless times throughout my yoga studies and practice. Yet I always had a hard time embracing this part of the practice. I struggled with the feeling that surrendering was somehow conducive to giving up or giving in. What about fighting for what we want and being in control of our lives? How would surrendering to the present moment get me out of a tough situation or keep me striving forward in my life? I had glimpses of what I thought it might mean and knew the theory, but was hesitant to fully embrace this practice in reality – until surrendering, unknowingly at first, became a vital part of my practice.
In the last six months, my life has thrust me between two extremes: I went from spending my summer at a yoga retreat center in Spain to my busiest college semester yet. As I danced between these polarities, I found myself struggling to keep up with the pace of my life, feeling that my heart was often a few steps behind my body. Even though I was physically present, and my mind was telling me I was excited to embrace these new environments, emotionally I hadn’t caught up yet, creating a dissonance I couldn’t quite understand at first of wishing for what I had just left behind.
During the summer, I spent over a month in the mountains of Andalucía, Spain working at an international yoga retreat center. My days in Spain consisted of taking or teaching yoga classes and meditating in the morning, gratifying chores such as washing dishes, gardening or mopping, reading and writing in free time, and evenings spent watching the most beautiful sunsets and clear night sky with the other volunteers.
After the initial travel stress and transitional period subsided, I was still left with an uncomfortable feeling. I knew that something more was at play. As I sat with the feeling, I came to realize that this long-desired free time was in fact unsettling to me. That I didn’t know how to slow down or be still. Despite years of practicing yoga and meditation, wishing for time off, complaining about being so busy and actively choosing to spend my summer in a place so conducive to peace, I still couldn’t allow myself to relax into this state of being. I was trained to be in a state of doing.
Initially, all I wanted was to hide from the discomfort I was feeling. On top of that, the dissonance of feeling some kind of disconnect in an environment deemed “perfect” – and not actually understanding why – only made my discomfort worse. I found myself trying to deny the feelings I held or wondering why I felt anything other than happy in this yogic paradise. The more I rejected my inner experience and found myself wishing away what was happening presently for me, the more I struggled to find any connection with or understanding of myself, which was a main reason I had come in the first place.
Given the fact that I was in an environment designed for introspection and solitude, this was not a feeling I could hide from. Unlike many other times when the simplest and easiest solution was to throw myself into work to distract myself from what’s going on, this time I had nowhere to run. My work left me alone with my thoughts, my daily yoga and meditation practice made me sit with my emotions and my personal time reminded me that I should be rejoicing in this long-awaited time-off instead of running from it. All I could do then was lean into it.
So I did. I began to meet my inner struggle with curiosity and open arms. I welcomed it in. I embraced it.
Once I stopped resisting my emotions, I began to see why I was feeling unsettled, and that this discomfort held a purpose, a message of sorts.
As I shifted my approach – instead of denying how I felt, welcoming it; instead of labeling my emotions as “negative” and trying to get rid of them, labeling them as “interesting” and wanting to know more about them. I felt myself begin to accept all that was happening for me. Although I wanted answers and to understand why, I also knew that sitting around and hypothesizing about why things were the way they were wouldn’t yield actual results. All I could do was continue to be present within each moment. I began to let go of the ever-strong grasp of control that I hold around my life. I gave in to all the emotions and experiences that arose with faith that they were there for a reason. I embraced the moments of pure joy and the moments of anguish or frustration. I stopped trying to formulate answers or make excuses and instead let myself be with what was. The less I fought the discomfort, the easier it got, until it almost entirely subsided. Unknowingly at first, I was learning to surrender.
And (somewhat surprisingly) my world around me did not fall apart because of it; in fact, it began to feel more fulfilling. The dissonance I had about feeling bad subsided so that I could then sit with the discomfort itself without all the labels and assumptions I had previously attached to it. As the discomfort became more of a teacher than an enemy, the control it had around me (and that I tried to have around it) subsided so that I could learn from it without being attached to it. Without the need to control – to qualify and quantify and objectify and categorize everything – I began to meet each emotion and each moment that arose with curiosity and equanimity instead of judgment.
Hindsight has allowed me to see that I was beginning to surrender, and that I was relinquishing some of my control in exchange for more openness and faith to the beauty of life in all its facets.
All too soon, my time in Spain came to a close. I was thrown back into my regular, overloaded schedule as a college student, making free time virtually nonexistent. Once again, I felt myself resisting my current situation. Only this time, ironically, I longed for the days when my biggest responsibility was making sure the dishes were washed and I could decide in the present moment what I wanted to do. Instead, now I barely had time to even cook for myself, let alone live without my agenda dictating my every step. At least this time I knew what was causing the discontent.
But this was the life I (mostly willingly) chose. Despite the stress and exhaustion, I ultimately knew there wasn’t anything I would happily or willingly give up. Which meant I needed to change my internal environment since the external one felt like complete chaos.
If practicing to surrender to my situation in the mountains of Southern Spain was a step into the unknown – a bit unsettling at first but an important switch to a more fulfilling time – trying to surrender amidst the chaos of Boston was like clinging to a life vest in tumultuous waters: a survival tactic and true test of all that I had been working towards. But maybe this was the point of going away in the first place: to be able to come back to “real life” and dive headfirst into the waters, knowing I now had the tools to stay afloat.
As I slowly changed the narrative from which I viewed my situation – embracing the chaos, finding purpose in the responsibilities, remaining present with the priorities in the moment instead of all that was ahead of me – I was able to exist amidst the whirlwind of activity with a level of unattachment that made me no less involved or passionate, but instead kept me at a level of peace within. That’s not to say that I wasn’t stressed out most days or feeling completely overwhelmed by all that I had going on, but instead it meant that I was able to stay afloat (even when it felt nearly impossible to do so) without drowning in my external circumstances.
It has taken daily reminders (some in the form of self-made notifications on my phone to stop and breathe, or my morning meditation to set my intentions for the day) to keep me coming back to this practice of letting go, even if just a tiny amount more. Without this intent of surrendering to my situation, I would have continued wishing for some ideal version of my life and applying unneeded, unrealistic pressure on myself (i.e. wanting to recreate the peaceful bliss I felt in Spain, thinking I need to do at least an hour of asana a day, etc.). Even though these thoughts and self-induced pressure didn’t disappear, I was at least more aware of them, which made them feel a little less threatening. While I still experienced moments of panic and moments of wishing things were different, I also had more faith in my ability to handle what came my way and more acceptance that this was the way things were supposed to be in this moment – and that was okay.
Like any aspect of yoga, learning to surrender is a practice, and one that takes time, patience and nurturing. It’s also an important reminder to me that I’m only grazing the very surface of yoga and still have much work to do.
Now trying to surrender is part of my daily practice; a reminder to myself that each moment holds a purpose that may remain concealed from me at first, and that wishing moments away or holding onto some ideal of control only strengthens resistance to the present. Surrendering does not mean becoming complacent with life; instead it means welcoming all of life’s moments in order to connect to a higher state of living; one that doesn’t depend on an outer environment or external circumstance, but rather to an inner strength and openness that is ready to embrace the life that I’m leading right now.
Om Shanti (Peace) xx
// Photo Cred: Shelby Sih @ Om Dome in Suryalila, Spain (Summer 2015)