I knew Octavio for less than four hours, most of that time spent with our feet buried in sand beside a calm ocean. It was 2004 and I was in Playa del Carmen while studying abroad in Mexico.

I can’t recall what he looked like now, only that he knew a little English and I knew a little Spanish. But boy, did he know how to move his hips to salsa.

I was in a foreign country speaking a foreign language, yet what was most foreign (and uncomfortable) were those dance moves. I started to clam up because my hands were in a boy’s and I was failing miserably in the hip department.

It took one song before I decided to kick my self-doubt to the curb. “You’re in Mexico,” I told myself. “You’re never going to see these people again. Just dance!”

So I did. I let go of my gangly arms and frizzy hair and trying to impress this Mexican boy and gave in to the humidity and the moonlight and the bass beneath my bare feet.

That night, with Octavio’s help, I began to discover that the only barriers that exist are in my mind.

The foreign within

Returning from a foreign country that you’ve spent a significant amount of time in is like driving away from a city and suddenly noticing the stars. Oh yeah, you think, I forgot you were still here.

Whether you’ve practiced yoga for years or are just starting, your body also can feel like a foreign country. The ancient yogis believed that we carry all sorts of samskaras (scars) in our bodies from physical to emotional injuries. It’s through the asanas (poses) that we release the tension and come more fully into our whole, healed selves.

Practicing a hip-opening pose like Pigeon can elicit the same response as a city dweller looking at the night sky: “Oh yeah, I forgot you were still here.”

Not only do we become acutely aware of our muscles in Pigeon, but our willingness to breathe and adapt to the tightness also comes into question. Most of us want to abandon as soon as we arrive.

Too many of us do, but the happiest of us don’t.

It never ceases to amaze me how, when placed in an entirely foreign and uncomfortable situation, our minds return to the same familiar patterns.

Earlier this year, my mom and I were on a yoga retreat in Nicaragua, 3,079 miles away from my home. At the end of one yoga session – monkeys in the trees and a calm ocean in front of me – I caught myself worrying about an inconsequential issue at my day job.

I grew irritated at first, but then I smiled. Here again, like in Playa del Carmen, my mind was holding me back. In both cases, I almost missed out on an amazing experience.

When confronted with a similar “You again?” moment in your mind, how do you react? Do you bury the thought, manifesting in tight hips, or do you notice when it happens?

And then the most important part: Do you give yourself permission to let go?

Healing mental injuries by traveling within

The key to adapting – to new environments as we travel and to our ever-changing bodies – is to bring to light the unseen parts of ourselves.

I love what Tara Brach says in Radical Self-Acceptance:

“As we open to the unseen parts of our being we connect with their basic energy. With their energy of aliveness. Their energy to grow and to bear fruit and to die. We connect with the violence of storms and with the beauty of sunsets. We connect with all the different parts of life that when felt allow us to discover wholeness.”

The ebb and flow of life exists inside our bodies. Like calm ocean waves we are never truly still, even when we appear to be so. There’s always something going on beneath the surface.

What if we thought about our mental and emotional issues as we do our physical injuries?

When we stub our toes, we take care not to apply too much pressure when we walk. It’s the opposite with our mental “injuries.” We revisit them over and over. We’re critical of ourselves for even having them, which just makes things worse.

The better you are at ignoring the pain, the more these thoughts show up (and pour out) on the yoga mat. This is why traveling within is so important.

It’s time to make a choice

In a recent blog, Chris Guillebeau of The Art of Non-Conformity linked to a VH1 Storyteller Session with Jason Mraz. In it, yogi and musician Mraz says, “Who are you being right now by not powerfully choosing which direction you want to go? Just choose.”

When we choose no direction, we stagnate. Our bodies and minds become habitually focused on maintaining the status quo. Often, we become dissatisfied with the routines of our lives without knowing why.

When we suddenly start meditating 10 minutes a day or practicing yoga poses, the mind and body awaken. We begin to bring to light the unseen parts of ourselves. That’s when we notice the habits that keep us stuck.

It’s like visiting another city, state or country – traveling anywhere outside of our normal can bring us back to ourselves.

In 2004 on that beach with Octavio, I became aware that I was self-conscious. This awareness was a fluke. Most of the time while studying abroad in Mexico, I was heavily involved in my mind’s thoughts and so self-critical that I couldn’t see that I was holding myself back.

I began practicing yoga three years later. Now, in 2012, I always dance like nobody’s watching because I’ve realized that the only person who’s watching is me.

It’s difficult to motivate ourselves to change our thought routines, so it’s best to start in the body. When you come into Pigeon Pose, allow your mind to loosen around its immediate reaction, which is usually, Get me out of here!

Instead, breathe into your discomfort and commit to stick with the pose for 1 minute, then 2 minutes, then 3.

Getting to know your inner foreign – all your unseen thoughts and emotions – is the start of a new habit: one where you don’t hold yourself back anymore.

Pigeon Pose, Eka Pada Rajakapotasana

  1. Start in Downward Facing Dog. Lift your right leg and step it to the top of your mat for a low lunge.
  2. Heel toe your right foot to the left side of your mat and lay your shin down on the mat. Keep your left toes tucked under.
  3. Bring your hands on either side of your hips to prop your chest up. Adjust your front leg: If your hips feel open today, bring your shin parallel to the top of your mat; if your hips feel tight today (and if you experience any discomfort in your right knee) bring your heel back toward your pelvis.
  4. Flex your right foot to protect the knee. Take a deep breath to extend the spine, then exhale and descend the upper body toward the mat.
  5. Rest your forehead on the back of your hands, or if your head does not reach the floor, prop it on a block, pillow or blanket.
  6. Draw your hips evenly square to the mat by gently nudging the right hip back and the left hip forward. This action will increase the intensity of the pose, so give yourself permission to adjust.
  7. Release your left toes on the mat while keeping the left leg engaged. Relax the upper body as much as possible.
  8. Send deep breaths into your hips, imaging the space brightening and expanding with each inhale and exhale.
  9. When it’s time to come out, use your hands to walk your upper body upright. Lift the hips and send your right leg back into Downward Facing Dog. Lift and rotate the right hip and leg before taking Pigeon pose on the left side.

Does traveling give you new perspective? Share in the comments.