My eyes were closed, my fingers were gripping the rubber mat and muscles I didn't know I had were screaming in agony. I was at my first yoga class in over a year, after spending the better part of that year sitting at my computer writing. The pose was "dragon," so named because it brings fire to a lot of very deep, stretchy tissue in the hips—exactly what I needed after a year of unkindly sitting on them. In that particular moment, though, I didn't care about whatever good things it was doing to my writing-wracked bod. All I could think about was that dragon was a very accurate name and that I really didn't want to be in that pose anymore. What I didn't know is that all that agony was going to teach me a great lesson that applied to more than the anatomy of my poses and how to power through a daily workout.
You see, the past few weeks I've been having a bad case of the 20-somethings. Like a lot of people my age, I have no idea how to get where I want to be. I can think of a lot of things that are nice, both at present and as hypothetical elements of the future, but I don't see how point A connects to point B. Or even what to do with everything that makes up point A. Right now, I see point B as a place where this whole writing thing is financially sustainable and where I host weekly dinner parties with friends and feel like I'm really a part of an ensemble cast of characters, instead of guest starring in everyone else's "Friends" or "Felicity" or "Cheers" or even freaking "Melrose Place."
For other people, that point B is getting married or having a kid or getting that big promotion or finally getting to explore somewhere in Southeast Asia. Point B can be something as simple as losing weight or buying a house or making a certain amount of money or as big as finally getting to live in the same city as the amazing guy you happened to meet on vacation, even though he lives 2,000 miles away. However pragmatic or impulsive or mature you might be, there's never a crystal ball and rarely a clear path to arriving wherever it is your want to be.
No matter what ails you, when you feel stuck or haunted or in some other way frustrated or bad, it can be hard to tell if you're doing the right thing. If something hurts, we're kind of conditioned to think something is wrong and that we should stop doing it. After all, no smart or sane person leaves his or her burning hand on a hot stove. But in your 20s, a lot of things hurt. There's breakups and firings and not getting hired and people forgetting your birthday and hangovers, and saying terrible things at parties because you are awkward, and not liking yourself and being poor and rats living in your ceiling and scary guys who harass you on the street and really wanting to be the kind of person who shops at Whole Foods and gives to charity but also wanting to be the kind of person who owns something, anything with an Anthropologie label and not knowing which person you want to be more.
There's a lot of wishing you were brave enough to do something bold and daring, like teaching English in Singapore for a year and being afraid that, if you do, all your friends will forget you and you'll never meet the love of your life and you won't see your baby cousins grow up. But if you don't go, you might have never lived, and you also might be missing out on the love of your life, and what are you so afraid of, anyways? And it all seems to come that rapidly and jumbled together so that your thoughts don't even have proper grammatical structure, they're just one huge mess of the millennial mind and no wonder we're all confused.
All of this sort of stream-of-consciousness meandering wondering was going on during that yoga class. It was a distraction from the discomfort, and I find that when you actually give your brain a break from work or adorable animals on the Internet or what your friends are saying or how insanely attractive your partner is that you can actually get some good thinking done. Right then, I was thinking that of all the things in your 20s that hurt, the one that hurt the most right then were all of those tendons I was continuing to torture just so I wouldn't suffer the public shame of being the first person to give up on dragon. The teacher knew we were all clinging for dear life to those increasingly fragile threads of pride, the only thing that kept our hips suspended above the floor instead of letting us collapse into exhausted, slightly more limber heaps.
"I know, it's intense. This pose can be uncomfortable or even hurt. If it's sharp, shooting or stabbing pain, then listen to your body and go to another pose," she told us, pacing around the room to see if anyone needed help. "Some kinds of pain are actually good and tell us that we're growing. You need to work through it. The fire is a normal part of this pose." So I bore it and held my dragon pose.
That's when I thought about the last time I'd done yoga regularly. It was a year when a lot of things hurt. I had recently graduated from college, had just been dumped in a very nasty and dramatic fashion, had quit a grownup job to work in retail because of sexual harassment, and had started seeing a therapist once a week. Then, as in dragon pose, the only thing I could do to get through it was to lean into the pain. When life hurt, it was because I was growing through a lot of tough things with a lot of fire. I was exercising emotional and mental muscles I had never needed before and hadn't known were there.
A good yoga teacher plans all the poses in the class to build off one another, not just so you can transition from one to the next without having to do something awkward, but to get you somewhere by the end of the class you weren't at the beginning. You might start off your hour just standing and breathing, and by the end a good yoga teacher might have stretched you and pushed you and tricked you into suddenly being able to balance on your forearms with your legs in the air at improbable angles. You, the student, don't always see where it's going. How were you to know that strange shoulder stretch was actually opening up your chest so you'd be able to pull off a crazy move like "crow," where suddenly your entire body is horizontal and floating off the ground and you feel like you're flying?
That's your 20s right there. You don't know where those painful stretches are going. You don't know why you're breathing through all that discomfort that is supposedly making you grow. You aren't even sure what the difference is between a normal, healthy amount of discomfort and those sharp, shooting, stabbing pains that are supposed to mean you're pulling a muscle or throwing something out of joint. All you can do is keep moving through the poses, stopping at each one along the way. In life, as in yoga, you have to keep moving ahead with whatever unique vision of the future you hold close. At some point, just by running around like the crazy lost people we all are, we accidentally run smack-dab into the future. We might hit it face-first like a glass door or a revelation or fall down into it like a deep hole or a warm embrace, but at some point, you knock into something you didn't fully see coming, and that point is often point B.
As I leaned into my dragon pose, I started to think a little differently about all the things I've been stressing about lately. Sure, some things don't seem to change. I'm still waiting for the part of my life where I feel like I'm the quirky heroine in my own sitcom instead of a last-minute side plot. Sure, I don't make a lot of money right now. It's OK. I've been in harder poses. I've leaned into worse pain and come out a little stronger and more flexible. If I keep breathing and holding steady through whatever life throws at me, who knows, I might find a little enlightenment and peace. I hope when I reach it that it feels like flying. But by then, it'll probably just feel like everyday life.
By moving through the poses, you're supposed to learn a little bit about life along the way. What I learned with dragon pose is that the movements you make in your 20s might not help you outrun the past selves that are chasing you. They might not get you to your future selves any faster. But they might quiet your mind; they might give you clarity as you contemplate yourself and your options and your dreams. You can count on the poses of your 20s to get you ahead bit by bit, as long as you don't stop moving forward.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.