The Moment I Realized Unexpected Gifts Are Everywhere

I learned a lesson in yoga class that completely shifted my perspective.


My attention management (1-2) habits for 2020 include being more intentional about balance by scheduling time for renewal and actually keeping those appointments with myself just like I would any other.  For example, I shifted my clinical schedule to give me more options to attend my favorite yoga class. It takes effort, but I can usually make it to the studio on time. One afternoon a few weeks ago, my partner Rick arrived before me and put out mats for us next to one another in the middle of the room. Power yoga is a popular class, and on this particular Wednesday, we were packed in tighter than usual.

The stress of the day began to melt as our instructor Jake started the music and set an intention for the practice as he always does. Today was about releasing judgment. My reflection was sharply interrupted as a woman barreled in late and threw her mat down inches from mine, uncomfortably close for even the most generous interpretation of personal space. I leaned over and whispered if she might move to the row ahead where there was an open space. She scowled and ordered me to scoot the other way. A lateral move would simply set me up to bump into Rick instead, offering little improvement to our predicament. Rather than argue, I moved forward myself. 

I’m uncomfortable in the front row. I can now hold my own, but I’m still learning, and this is LA — yogis here are no joke. I’ve learned to laugh and let go when I misunderstand the instructions or fall out of a challenging pose, but I still avoid front and center so I’m not a distraction for others. 

In another setting, like the grocery store, in traffic, or even the gym floor, I would probably have confronted her with righteous indignation. How could she be so selfish? She was the one who came in late! Besides, she was missing the whole point of why we were there in the first place. But this is yoga, and I have to escort those thoughts out of my consciousness.  

Damnit. Not only am I frustrated at her for being rude and inflexible, but now I’m also focused on our exchange and not the practice. Worse still, she’s directly behind me, and I’ll have to see her in the mirror the entire class. “Ok, Matthew, just focus on your breathing.” My pulse is up and my face flushed. “Let it go, keep focusing on your breath, just like in meditation. In. Out. In. Out.”

I close my eyes and listen as Jake asks us to imagine standing just in front of a large painting. Up close you can only see a tiny portion of the picture. You may think you know what you’re looking at, but it isn’t until you step back that you appreciate how that piece fits into the larger whole. I apply this metaphor about judgment to my classmate and say a little prayer for her. Who knows what events or personal troubles contributed to her behavior that day? 

It ends up being a terrific practice. Sweaty and satisfied, I look over at Rick and smile as I always do after reciting “Namaste” to close the session. My peace is once again interrupted as the late arriver whips her sweatshirt in front of my face and brushes past me with a caustic, “excuse you.” Completely surprised, I shake my head with a chuckle as I drop my mat and towel in the bin and make my way out.

I don’t know who she was, but the late arriver was the first entry in my gratitude journal that night. Ordinarily, I would see her as a nuisance to complain about, but I realized she had given me a gift. I’ve tried to implement the Buddhist principle “respond, don’t react,” and it’s hard. I’ve spent my life reacting and watching others do the same. The setting in this case forced me to not react, allowing me to practice patience and empathy. It was an unexpected gift. 

I think this idea of unexpected gifts taps into the sentiments behind statements like “God doesn’t give you more than you can’t handle” and “everything happens for a reason.” It got me thinking about all sorts of things in my life I could reimagine as unexpected gifts. I used to be ashamed of my sexual orientation, but now I treasure my community and celebrate the color we add to the world. My years-long dispute with alcohol has been a real pain in the butt (more on this in a future post), but the struggle helped me understand the obstacles others face in making lasting change in their lives. I’m learning to let go of feeling like I’m missing out, and, like Brené Brown, I now see sobriety as a superpower. (3) Experiencing complications after my own surgeries sure sucked at the time, but they allowed me to better understand what my patients go through when things don’t go as planned.  

I am grateful for the lesson I learned that day in yoga. Unexpected gifts are everywhere. 


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