My Portable Home: Finding Refuge on My Yoga Mat

In my twenties, I was the leader of an eight-member music group that toured through India for four months. Landing in Bombay, we took the rail south to Trivandrum, where the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, and Arabian Sea merge. Going north through Andhra, Madhya, and Uttar states, we passed through Agra and ended the tour in New Delhi. It was my first international trip and I felt challenged by new customs, food, language, and climate. To a student fresh out of college, India was a new and vibrant world I did not understand.

Walking out of church one Easter Sunday, I saw an elderly man sitting on the church lawn near a busy sidewalk. He was practicing garurasana, eagle pose. Most people filed right past him as if he were invisible. I stared, and I thought he looked uncomfortable. That experience was 35 years before I began practicing yoga, and I had no idea what he was doing.

After leaving Delhi, my transition back to the U.S. was rapid, and I felt strangely affected by my travels. I seemed to be seeing things differently. When I went into stores, I found myself looking for things to which I'd grown accustomed in India, such as the blue-faced representation of Krishna adorning wall calendars.

The silence, typical of small town country living, was odd after I’d grown used to the shrieking sound of bus horns. In my music room, I replicated that dissonant and jarring pitch by simultaneously plucking my guitar’s E string on the eighth fret and the G string on the eleventh fret.

I thought back with nostalgia to those times when I was in India with my band, and people attending our concerts at hospitals, churches, or embassies placed garlands of fresh jasmine flowers around my neck and the necks of my bandmates, as often happened when our group performed. I was keenly aware that nothing in rural Wisconsin smelled like the luscious jasmine flower of south India.

But I was home in northwest Wisconsin. My town of 12,000 was quiet. We didn’t have legions of loud buses in the streets. There was no smell of fresh jasmine. No one was sitting on the lawns, the brown grass was still cold from an occasional snowfall, and the farm fields lay fallow.

I had six months before starting graduate school, so I began looking for a job and writing about my experience abroad. Writing was helpful, but I needed something else to help with my transition back to the Midwest. I found it with the county agricultural department. Every other summer the department gathered updates on the square footage of current crop fields and compared those with what appeared in their photographs from previous years.

My job was to get accurate and up-to-date measurements by placing a Rolatape® on the ground and walking the perimeter of the crop fields. Each Monday, I was given a large stack of maps. I got in my car, found the farm fields, and began walking. The Rolatape® is a 12-inch measuring wheel that looks like a bicycle tire, with a digital display on the handle to measure in either SAE “inches” or metric. Three months later, all the maps were done and my job was finished. More importantly, I had regrounded myself by walking the earth that surrounded my home.

This job brought me back from India in a way that was both intellectual and emotional. It enabled me to reconnect with my small niche in this world. While walking the fields, I learned the important function of finding my "place"—where I find comfort and repose. But after moving to Hawaii in 2012 and starting yoga, I’ve learned another lesson about my place in the world: It’s movable.

Now it doesn’t matter if my yoga mat is on the bamboo floor of a polished studio in Hawaii, a beach in Mexico, or on a cedar dock over a Wisconsin inland lake. My place, where I find all that I need, is 23¾ inches wide by 96¾ inches long. Focusing on being fully in that place, I work to inhabit yoga’s dynamic point. It takes place on my mat at the confluence of yogi, guru, and the ancient healing practice. There, the soles of my bare feet make contact with the ground, in the same way my feet in heavy boots hit the ground while walking my home turf many years ago.

It doesn’t matter if my yoga mat is on the bamboo floor of a polished studio in Hawaii, a beach in Mexico, or on a cedar dock over a Wisconsin inland lake.

Within the 220 square inches of the mat, and in drishti gaze, I try to make sense of where I am and who I am in the world. When I recall walking the farm fields, I realize I was similarly engaged, but without the same intention. Then, thirty-five years ago, my gaze was to the meeting point of wheel and ground, with an occasional glance to the horizon (where my walking helped me to return and reground). Now, in yoga, I do that continually.

I think of a phrase my teacher regularly uses when encouraging the class to ground and become present: “Your place is here.” This helps the regrounding because it shrinks the size of the world from an unmanageable wide-open marketplace or busy street to 220 square inches.

One of the great gifts of yoga is that any place can become a wellspring of depth, a healing ground in the chaotic world, and a place to make sense of where and who we are and where we have been.

All I need to do at any time—Sunday through Saturday—is waiting for me on this small, rectangular place that is my mat. This is not complicated, but I still post anota bene to self: Ground yourself here and now, and watch what happens.

Nothing is more important than engaging fully in the moment on the healing ground of my yoga mat. In doing so, I’ve learned that I belong there and it was my destiny to find that place. It’s also my identity, for on that ground I come face to face with who I am in yoga’s most challenging moments.

Tranquility is not waiting for me in Madras or Mysore. I haven't found it in Los Angeles or Honolulu. It’s escaped my grasp nearly everywhere. But I can find calm and healing within, and I’ve realized I can name it and claim it when I’m on the ground of the 220 square inches. While I go to my mat alone, I embrace the solitude—because there my solitary dialogue shapes me.

Trying to make a living in the world, perhaps we cannot avoid the demands and stressors, the anxiety of the coffee-fueled masses, and the noise and lack of peace. But yoga has taught me where to go to find the calm. It’s a portable place, found on the 220 square inches of my yoga mat. These are the dimensions of depth, and the ground of healing.

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About the teacher

Gregory Ormson moved from the Midwest to Hawaii in 2012. He was on the floor with a painful back injury... Read more

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