Creating Space Can Change Your Life
Updated: Aug 20, 2022
There are many ways in which we deny ourselves space. Often, we don’t even make room for ourselves in our own lives. We spend our time doing things for others, taking care of our children and then our parents, working hard, paying the bills, and giving our very selves away in the process. Once we realize this is happening and we resolve to create more space for our selves literally and figuratively, it can be tempting to try and clear space with one fell swoop. Just sweep everything away and begin all over again. When I was a teenager, my peers often talked about “going into the woods for a few days to get my head together!” It is not a bad idea in and of itself and if done regularly probably would help. But this all or nothing thinking usually leads to nothing since we can rarely accomplish all. Certainly not all at once! We need to let go of the big, dramatic changes that we fantasize about and start one small step at a time.
I invite you to create one small space wherever you live that is just for you. Ideally, it would be a space big enough for you to lie down, just long and wide enough for a yoga mat. If that is not possible, look for a space where you can stand and sit so you could do a few standing yoga postures and sit down for breathing and meditation practice. If even two square feet is not available, look for a shelf or the top of a bureau or table where you might create an altar. In any of these spaces, place just a few things: a yoga mat if possible, some firm blankets or cushions, and at least one object of beauty such as a special stone, a tiny statue, or a small vase that can hold one medium flower or several small flowers.
Once you create that space, make it part of your daily ritual to maintain and care for it. Keep it clean and organized. Because it is small and has very little in it, you are setting yourself up for success! I know a woman who lives in a very small house which she shares with many people. Her dharma is to create space for others to practice yoga. Yet she does not have her own personal area in which to practice. However, she has a beautiful altar on the shelf behind her kitchen sink where she honors the gifts of the seasons: flowers, stones, acorns. The colors and textures change with the weather and reflect what is happening in the garden and in the forest. On this narrow shelf, no more than three feet across, she manifests her sense of peace, happiness, and enoughness. Creating and recreating it keeps her grounded in nature and centered in the beauty of life.
Practicing in a confined space has been a common experience in the history of yoga. When I lived in South Africa during the apartheid era, my father was invited to share a meal with a family who lived in the township of Lenasia. I was able to go with him and wondered how it would feel to see how people were surviving under such dire circumstances. Before we even arrived, I felt guilty about my own privilege and sad about their misfortune. But we arrived to a very vibrant scene. A large family clothed in bright colors with beautiful textures gathered around us, offering us an abundance of delicious foods and drinks. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming. They were not at all interested in discussing their difficulties but were focused on getting to know us, showering us with questions, and responding to our answers with more engagement than I was used to. I made an effort to ask them questions too and they began sharing their wealth of wisdom and experience, emphasizing not their hardships but the resourcefulness and resiliency which had sustained them. It was some time before I realized what a small space we were all in. They gave me the tour of a three tiny rooms clustered around the open living space which I later realized doubled as a big sleeping room at night. The kitchen had an outdoor component as is often the case in tropical climates. There was one bedroom, perhaps reserved for the revered elders or a nursing mother. And the only other room was “the meditation room.” The centerpiece of this room was the altar around which several cushions and blankets were set up. Unlike the other rooms which were crowded with the necessities of living, this small room felt quite spacious. I am not sure exactly how many people lived in this little home but I counted at least 13 and yet they reserved one full room for meditation and the other practices of yoga.
More recently, I studied with a teacher at a most unpretentious asherim. He lives in a double wide trailer and created a sacred space in the basement. A mattress on the floor in a corner is stacked with unruly blankets. In other corners are a wood stove, piles of instruments and untidy mountains of pillows and cushions. There is no furniture unless you count the bed: hence, the pillows and cushions for sitting on the floor. The altar takes up one full wall and is crammed with candles, stones, statues, incense, and photos of my teacher’s teachers and their teachers. It is a simple yet rich space that feels completely welcoming and safe, much like the home I visited in Lenasia. What lingers here is not fashion, decoration or high design but the resonance of mantras, chanting, and deep investigations of philosophy, literature, and the meaning and purpose of this existence. It is not bright and spacious with windows but reverent with the burning of candles and wood.
The yogic tradition has often required hiding and living in caves or in the depths of dense, dark forests. Although Hinduism now incorporates many yogic beliefs and practices into its traditions, the Brahman warriors who first forced their religious beliefs on the Caucus tribes millennia ago, committed genocide on the yogic populations who were living there in harmony and natural abundance at that time. There are many stories in the Vedic literature about yogins fleeing into the forests and mountains from greedy, power hungry rulers. There are countless descriptions of yogins living in caves, often small, dark, and damp with low ceilings. I feel claustrophobic just imagining it! Fortunately these caves were in mountains so yoga evolved in but also on the spectacular rocks of the Himalayas. It was in these dark caves and forests, that the light and warmth of yoga was passed down through the generations and kept alive for the times when it was safe to come out into the open again. But even to this day, in both the east and the west, yoga is often misunderstood and maligned, relegated to the sidelines, corners, and margins.
So, if you struggle to create space for yoga in your life, welcome! This is part of the practice. When you create and maintain a physical space for your sacred self, however small it is, you begin to create space for that part of you in the rest of your life as well. This space represents your desire to dwell in a place where your heart matters, where your mind can focus, where your awareness can grow and your body can relax. As you continually manifest this space in your life, you will begin to notice that you are more able to say no to that which is not necessary and yes to that which is essential.
Om Nama Shiva Ya!