A Yoga Journey, On and Beyond the Mat

Woman in yoga studio with her feet against the wall and her body on the floor

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for a conversation with Tom Carroll, to discuss his yoga journey. I met Tom at a West Coast Swing lesson, then bumped into him again when I walked into his Mind and Body Yoga class at my health and fitness center. Although I’ve been to many yoga classes over the years. I typically don’t know what style of yoga I’m participating in, which can make it more difficult to find classes I’d like. In general, I enjoy sessions that begin with taking a few breaths to become grounded. I prefer to spend time in each pose, noticing how tiny tweaks affect my balance, posture, and what muscles are being activated. I also enjoy hearing tips and having insights provided to me that I might miss while using a book or YouTube, as a guide.

Through the years, learning about the history, thoughts, values, and viewpoints behind the practice has fostered my connection to the larger yoga community. This connection has led to an incorporation of yoga into my identity, something that influences who I am, rather than just being something I engage in.

Perhaps my favorite moment in a session is when the instructor asks you, near the end, to lie down for a guided meditation. When I have attended sessions that do not include a final meditation, or closing salutation (for example, Namaste), I feel robbed. It’s akin to the feeling I have after watching a movie that left too many loose ends.

Stumbling onto a Comprehensive Yoga Experience

It’s rare to find all of the elements I appreciate most in a single yoga class. I was surprised and incredibly grateful to stumble upon everything I enjoy most in Tom Carroll’s session.

Tom has a calm and peaceful demeanor, and as an outside observer, it’s obvious to me that he’s living what he’s teaching. He is approachable, and his ability to convey knowledge effectively has made his class on of the most diverse I’ve attended. People of all ages, levels of ability, and experience leave feeling it was an hour (and five minutes) well spent.

I wanted to uncover some of the secrets behind Tom’s teaching style and relaxed disposition.

A Yoga Journey Begins with a Single Step

Tom Carroll currently teaches yoga and meditation, part time, at various locations around Bloomington, Illinois. He also runs a leadership academy at the Mennonite College of Nursing.

We spent some time talking about his yoga journey, which began following a back injury, in his 30s. Tom was attempting to come to terms with his medical diagnosis and the accompanying news that he would need steroid injections… indefinitely. He was still struggling with that realization while attending a men’s retreat in Chicago.

Also in attendance was Gabriel Halpern, who, according to Yoga Journal’s article “10 Influential Teachers Who Have Shaped Yoga in America” has:

“influenced nearly every single major teacher at Chicago’s yogic strongholds…”

Attending Gabriel’s classes brought significant improvement in Tom’s back. As the pain and tightness were disappearing, he was learning the underlying philosophy of yoga. Gabriel’s classes were in the Iyengar tradition, named after B.K.S. Iyengar, who saw yoga as a lifestyle, philosophy, and practice. 

“Yoga is like music. The rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind, and the harmony of the soul creates the symphony of life.” 

B.K.S. Iyengar

Tom enjoyed Gabriel’s precision, his focus on adaptation, and his incorporation of yogic principles.

Transition & Immersion

Twenty years later, Tom had experienced many styles of yoga, and was also participating in, or had participated in, “a bazillion” other types of physical training. Currently, because he desires joint longevity, Tom is practicing yoga nearly exclusively. He is doing very well physically, never having needed a second set of steroid injections.

Tom left a corporate position after his wife passed away suddenly, following a heart attack, in 2016. He was left questioning what he really wanted to do with the remainder of his time. Well aware of how precious life is, and how quickly it passes, he wanted to devote his energy to doing more of those things he loved most. With his whole world flipped upside down, there would never be a better time for an overhaul.

In January of 2018, Tom hopped on a plane to Costa Rica, where he completed his 200 hours of yoga teacher training. Although he didn’t know it when he signed up for the program, the woman who taught the certification course was trained in Iyengar yoga, just like Gabriel Halpern.

Tom loves what he does and it shows. When we met, he lit up every time he talked about his yoga journey, watching his grandchild, working with students in his leadership course, or traveling. Although he had previously traveled extensively, it hadn’t been for pleasure.

Today, yoga as a mindset, perspective, and lifestyle is evident in every aspect of Tom’s life.

The Yoga Journey, Beyond the Mat

A yoga journey is incomplete without the fostering of yogic principles and practices.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga sums up much of Yogic Philosophy.

  • Yamas are ethical guidelines, such as: be honest, avoid violence, do not envy or take what is not yours, be true to your word, have compassion for yourself and others
  • Niyamas are practices, which include: willpower, self-awareness, belief in something greater than oneself, respect for people and property
  • Asana refers to yoga poses, which are meant to be used as mental preparation for meditation, but the term also refers to a mindset. The Asana mindset is that of a novice student: ready to learn, eager, curious
  • Pranayama is the “cultivation of our vital life force” or the use of breathing techniques to: increase concentration, quite our thoughts, invite inspiration, and ground ourselves
  • Pratyahara is the practice of turning our attention inward, to see beyond the limitations of self, to step outside of (and move beyond) our thoughts
  • Dharana allows us to hone our minds and learn to attain a singular focus
  • Dhyana is also referred to as flow. When we are in this state, we feel: connected to everything yet attached to nothing, hyper aware yet relaxed, blissful and content, completely unaware of the passage of time
  • Samadhi is ecstasy, transcendence, enlightenment
Yoga helps us learn to live in the moment
Yoga helps us learn to live in the moment

Beneath the Surface

Tom and I discussed the ethics, breathing practices, postures, and three levels of meditation articulated through the eight limbs.

He explained that all of these elements are present in every lineage of yoga, even though some lineages have focused more on specific aspects over others. They may be present “behind the scenes”, something a teacher considers but may not share with students.  

The principles represented by the eight limbs separates yoga, a holistic, comprehensive approach to wellness, from other physical fitness activities.

The Mat as a Mirror

When Tom decided to become certified as a yoga instructor, he wanted to ensure that the safety of his students was a high priority, and that anyone (no matter their level of fitness or experience with the practice) would find his classes accessible. He also wanted his students to know that yoga involves mind, body, spirit, and emotion.

“The physical postures themselves can be insights… “

Tom Carroll

If a physical posture is difficult, for example, our response might reveal insights into how we handle difficult situations in other areas of our lives.

Tom understands that students who judge themselves harshly “on the mat” are likely hyper-critical of themselves “off the mat”. He also has seen the potential for yoga to allow people to discover their true selves. Yoga reflects back our habitual negative thought patterns, which were previously outside of our conscious awareness or careful consideration.

Yoga can help us learn to decenter, to detach from our thoughts, to become an observer of our own minds. We learn to watch our thoughts as they float on by. This new awareness brings insights that allow us to become intentional about the ideas we want to entertain versus those we want to let go.

Embracing the “Rumble”

Tom talked about students’ attempts to achieve challenging poses. He can usually tell when participants are pushing themselves toward achievement, or past their limit (edge), because they become tense and begin holding their breath. Of course, both of these reactions are counter-productive to moving into or holding a posture.

Over time we become more mindful of our boundaries, tensions, and breathing. This newfound awareness, acceptance of ourselves as we are, where we are, can be brought back into our lives, work, and relationships.

Our increased awareness can reveal emotional states.

  • Do we feel like we’re good enough?
  • How do we approach relationships?
  • How do we address conflicts?

When we become patient, calm, and still, we realize suffering is temporary. We understand that good times, as well as tough times, will ebb and flow. As we quiet our minds, we pave the way to connect to our internal power to heal.

Eventually, we learn to remain with the poses, to stay in the present and have mindful awareness of what we are engaged in. Tom still feels challenged, from time to time, as any human being would, on days when he is less focused and he feels less grounded.

There are multiple layers of complexity within yoga. On the one hand, there are poses that are physically challenging to any yogi. On the other hand, the holding of poses for longer periods of time can be mentally and emotionally challenging. Poses may be physically difficult because they require a great deal of strength, balance, flexibility, or quick movements from pose to pose. The faster a participant moves through a sequence, the more demanding it is.

Healing through a Yoga Journey

Starting a yoga journey has been a source of healing and recovery for people suffering from, amongst other things:

Medical Yoga is a term for yoga practices utilized in the prevention and treatment of illness, diseases, or disorders.

“The burden due to stress-related illness is quite concerning. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that … about 75% of all physician visits, and up to 80% of all visits to primary care providers are for stress-related complaints. These involve a wide spectrum of complaints, including headache, back pain, hypertension, arrhythmias, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, depression, anxiety, skin problems, fatigue, obesity, migraines, hyperlipidemia, and accidents.”

Stephens, Ina, “Medical Yoga Therapy” 

Time (and Life) Orientations

According to Tom, one of the key reasons people find yoga healing, particularly for those with anxiety or depression, is that it allows us to step back and gain insight into where our minds are wondering off to. As we start to step back from and observe our thoughts during yoga practice, we realize that our thinking gravitates toward one of two directions. Most people either focus on, are living in, the future or the past.

Those who have a future orientation are prone to getting caught up in preparation. They can become so fixated on planning or list making that they begin to live in the future, worrying about things that haven’t occurred yet. Although nothing is wrong in the present, the stress felt over what may become is very real. In the end, they often fail to meet unrealistic expectations and demands, which they themselves have put into place.Additionally, some are overwhelmed with concern about all of the unknowns that lie ahead. This can lead to anxiety or apprehension.

When people orient toward the past, they can get caught up in what could have been, what they should have said, or wish they had done. This can lead to regrets about the present, or how they ended up there. Sometimes the result is a sense of helplessness, powerlessness, sorrow, or depression.

Understanding where our mind goes when it’s wandering can be extremely insightful. Learning to stay in the present allows for greater connection to others, authenticity, and appreciation for our experience of the moment.

“Think about how much our world honors: future, future, future, future. Rarely are we completely attentive to someone. It’s almost a gift when you’re really present with someone, and there is no electronic media involved. You’re just listening, conversing, and sharing with one another. Think about how rare that’s becoming.”

Tom Carroll

I thoroughly enjoyed being “really present” with Tom, the other day. It was energizing and thought-provoking. He had so much wisdom to impart, I couldn’t possibly cover it all in a single post. Be sure to rear the follow up article.

Until then, I hope you’ll join me in a Moon Salutation!

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