I am not a nail polish-wearing-kind of girl. I've bitten my nails since I was two-and-a-half. Nail polish on chewed nails just accentuates the bad habit. But lately, my nails have begun growing healthy, and I've started polishing them. Yoga is the reason for both the healthy nails and the polish.
My eyes are closed. I lay flat on my back on a raspberry yoga mat in the first row of a class. My mat is situated between a very fit yoga man and an adventurous 70-something yogi grandmother. The teacher guides us to bend our knees toward our chest. We inhale, and then move our knees to the right towards the floor on an exhale. We pause here. Our breath initiates each movement. Another inhale and our knees move back to the center above our torsos. More breathing and then with an exhale we move our knees toward the floor on our left. The teacher releases us to do these moves with our own breath at our own pace. With my eyes closed, I can feel that my knees aren't lined up like they should be, and my shoulder blade lifts off the mat when it shouldn't.
My movements feel clunky. They don't feel smooth like I imagine they should. “This doesn't feel like the practice of a polished, accomplished yogi,” I hear myself say silently. This disruptive thought breaks my rhythmic breathing. The moving meditation has been thwarted by an unsettling thought: I have coped with life's stresses, confusions, heartaches, and uncertainties by being polished and composed. It's the mask I wear to hide the clunky, awkward pieces of me. It feels like a huge risk to embrace the unfamiliar and unpolished moments. Is there something to be gained by removing this mask? Authenticity? Vulnerability? Growth? I'm not sure I know how to do this. How to let myself let go of this composed facade.
I return to my breath. I continue the moving meditation. I play with the idea of being unpolished—it's a starting point. A measurable place to mark my progress—there's one benefit of allowing myself the freedom to just be wherever I am.
Yoga promotes a mind, body, spirit connection that at first doesn't seem possible. It teaches a non-judgmental exploration of how one's body feels in a given moment and what thoughts are attached to those physical sensations. For me, I have constant tightness in my hamstrings. Yoga teaches me to simply be aware of the tightness. To not feel frustrated, aggravated, or impatient. To breathe into that space and wait.
Yoga also promotes acceptance of the state of my hamstrings in any given moment. Some days they may make it possible for my fingertips to touch the floor. Other days reaching my ankles may be as far as I can go. I breathe and hesitatingly allow gentle compassion to wash over me. My teachers remind us with encouragement that practice and attention will eventually yield the improvements we want to come.
I'm still on my back and the thought crosses my breath-filled silences, “Why exactly do I HAVE to be polished?” This isn't what yoga—and life—are about. I feel a mental elbowing of empowerment in this thought. We move to our next pose and I feel liberated to let my body move as it is able today. No judgment, no unnecessary expectations.
The worry about being polished first met me when I was workshopping an essay in the Summer Writers Institute. My teacher pointed out that I have a very academic voice—one that uses semicolons—a lot. This habit is another way of keeping control of things that often feel out of control. Situations, personalities, dynamics. Keeping my voice composed and polished keeps my readers from knowing what I really think and feel. There's a lot of passion under the cool, composed exterior. Until my writing course, I didn't know it was there or what to do with it.
In yoga there is a lot of time spent looking at one's outstretched hands. Fingers are spread wide to form a firm foundation for downward dogs, side planks, and handstands. Yoga has planted me firmly in my body in a way that no other activity in my life has accomplished. I am a bookworm, a dreamer. I spend most of my time in my head and my heart. My poor body gets shut out most of the time. But not on my mat.
Yoga has seeped into how I think about my body: it is strong, it is capable, it is worthy of my time spent in healthy movement. Yoga has also shown me how to have fun again. That's where the nail polish comes in. I paint my nails because they are fun to look at in aqua, aubergine, and metallic hues. I've begun to break the nail-biting habit that has overtaken my childhood and adulthood with yoga's awareness of my behavior—of my fingers near my mouth. That's step one. Then I ask myself why I'm doing it, and if I can choose not to chew them just this time—that moves me closer to accepting this frustrating, unattractive habit.
Sometimes I chew my nails. Some days I can resist the temptation. The urge to chew is connected to things like stress, writer's block, anxiety. On the days where I peel away a layer of healthy nail, I have begun to practice patience and gentleness. I remind myself that with more awareness and more acceptance, I won't feel the need to chew them so often. That forms encouraging space for me. With these slight adjustments and greater awareness, my nails have grown healthy and longer. Wearing nail polish whether my nails are long or healthy enough is an act of acceptance of where I am right now. And a reminder that I am okay just as I am.