I stared at brightly colored postcard, turning the number over in my head for a long while, trying to figure out what it meant.
They had me at Yoga Festival by the Sea — an outdoor yoga event in Asbury Park to support of the Global Mala Peace Project. I envisioned a beautiful, sunny Indian Summer morning participating in an outdoor yoga class as a way to start my day, my $25 entry fee serving as a donation to various charities. But, 108?
I didn’t think much of it, shrugged my shoulders and went about my business. Little did I realize what I had gotten myself into…
Long after I forgot about the 108 did a Facebook post answer my question.
108…sun salutations in honor of International Peace Day. 108 salutes to the sun, a collective of people setting their intention through their practice to be the light, love and peace in the world and more importantly, in their community. Given my recent return to a yoga practice and enthusiasm for what it has brought to my life I had the initial thought that perhaps I had been a bit overzealous. I mean, it’s one thing to make it through a 90-minute class feeling blissed out it’s another to subject yourself to 108 chaturangas (which is essentially a push-up for the non-yogis out there). I prayed my arms wouldn’t fall off causing me to break my nose when my face smacked the boardwalk.
Fast-forward to a September Sunday morning and the reassuring voice of Krista Tippet prodding me to out of my warm bed and into the still, cool room thick with slumber. Padding down the hall I found my yoga clothes laid out along with my other yoga necessities for the day: water bottle, towel, wallet, keys and sunglasses (love it when I have the foresight to plan ahead). Tossing the bag in the back of my car where my yoga mat resides as a permanent backseat passenger, my car roared to life as I set my course to Asbury Park.
Stepping onto the boardwalk, I was greeted by the briny sea air and a stiff wind that reinforced my decision to layer – sweatshirt over long-sleeved techwick shirt over tank. Waiting in line I met two older women, Trina and Patty, who were atwitter about the morning’s line-up and what was in store for us. Bundled up to their chins, padded in fleece and dri-fit, and rocking red lipstick, I decided these ladies were exactly who I wanted to emulate when I hit 50: adventurous and chipper and able to understand the importance of lipstick no matter the occasion (note to self: branch out beyond Kiehl’s No. 1 lip balm and rock your inner MAC Viva Glam). So there we were, punctual yoginis excited at what lay ahead of us and still wondering about the significance behind 108 sun salutations. Was it a random number? Did it have meaning? Unable to decipher it amongst ourselves and unwilling to risk embarrassment and ask the volunteers, our chatter trailed off as we signed in and grabbed our complimentary water bottles (score!).
Biding farewell to my new friends, we dispersed into the quilt-like formation of yoga mats taking shape on the boardwalk. As my friends arrived and set up shop, the organizer floated through the maze of mats encouraging us to visit the sand mandala and set an intention for the days practice in support of the sponsor, Tiny Souls of Sandfalls. Walking across damp sand we came to a small group of people creating their mandalas, small circles designed with their creative inspirations for the for the day. Bright, sand-filled Dixie cups filled in hand, Melanie, Jason and I set about leaving an imprint, channeling our best artistic efforts.
Making our way back to our mats, we awaited the 9:30 start, drinking coffee and sharing stories to pass the time. The start was chock full of the pomp and circumstance of any major event: local dignitaries and politicians proclaiming the importance of the day and their admiration for what we were setting out to do. On the one hand I suppose I should be inspired by talks from our local officials like Congressman Pallone, but I can’t get past the fact that most speeches come across as insincere. For example, Congressman Pallone’s defining statements that morning were: a) he was happy to be there even though he doesn’t do yoga and b) he was qualified to speak to us because he represents the largest community of Indians in the state. Um, ok. Moving on…
- Deep breath in bringing your arms overhead, look to your thumbs
- Exhale as you fold over to touch your toes
- Inhale as you flatten your back and look up
- Exhale as you jump or walk back to chaturanga
- Inhale as you come to upward-facing dog or cobra
- Exhale as you come into downward dog
- Breathe in, breathe out x2
- On the last breath of an exhale step or float back to standing
- Breath in as you flatten your back
- Exhale as you bring your forehead to your knees
- And with an inhale, sweep your hands up over your heard
- Exhaling, bring your hands in prayer position to heart center
That’s essentially a sun salutation x 108. Of course there were variations – a low lunge, a warrior 1 or 2, a crow – to break up what could be considered monotonous. But the thing is? It never was. Each instructor brought their gifts and led a series that spoke to their style of yoga. It was a yogic spectrum: gentle and soothing to dynamic and challenging (crow, anyone?). Through it all, there we were 200+ yogis/yoginis moving through the vinyasa flow, rising and falling in unison like the undulating waves breaking on the shore.
The first 50 were a blur of adrenaline, around 55 I started to notice a warm, dull sensation in my elbow and wrist joints, while every muscle fiber in my arm seemed to stretch to the brink. Mind over matter and momentum carried me through the 60s, with one or two well-time breaks for child pose to better harness my breathing and give my aching upper body a break (side note: the beauty of being a runner? Leg muscles will pretty much endure everything). With a new instructor in the 70s, I reentered the flow, the wear of fatigue introducing small convulsions that accompanied every modified chaturanga (now knees, chest, chin resting on the ground), but through it all the flow remained, the intention was there. The 80s and 90s were a blur of pose/rest/pose and the final 8 were a true challenge.
I gave it everything I had.
There was nothing left to do except for the final savasana (corpse pose). The instructor’s voice was soothing, leading our muscles through a sequence of unwinding, every touch point along the floor melting into the mat. With the cool ocean breeze and bright sun to keep us warm, I couldn’t recall a savasana where I had felt more relaxed. I was fully present, yet instantly transported back to my childhood when we’d emerge from the water after boogey boarding all day and collapse on our towels, out of breath and exhausted. My mind would wander as the sun soaked up every bit of salt water on my skin, radiating warmth and leaving only small grains of salt and sand in its wake.
Ending our savasana in a seated position, we raised our collective voices for an om that reverberated into the air. We had done it.
Later, as we walked down the boardwalk to score some Korean tacos, all exhaustion faded away and in its place lightness, awareness and compassion took hold. We were as energetic as kids regaling each other with our “breaking points” and feeling connected to this community of individuals who are not only passionate about yoga but passionate about bringing the lessons from the mat into the world. As we sat on the beach afterwards, my friend Melanie and I were talking about the day and she shared a book she’s reading for her yoga teacher training: “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali“. At her urging to read the preface, one line struck me, “Just be good and do good. It’s very simple.”
As I was driving home that afternoon, the sunshine bright in the September sky, the wind streaming through the windows I found myself looking at my surroundings with fresh eyes. It may have been the way the light hit the yellow-tinged leaves, signaling the start of fall or the heavy trunked sycamores that line this picturesque lane, but for a moment a sense of appreciation for the day settled in and simplicity of living a connected life to others and nature seemed so attainable and easy to understand.
It was only later as I sat down in front of my computer did 108 resurface. I still didn’t know the true meaning behind 108. And as it always does: Google held the answer in this Yoga Journal Q+A:
- the number of beads in malas (prayer beads) used by Buddhists and Hindus
- the average distance of “the Sun and the Moon to the Earth is 108 times their respective diameters”
- the number of sacred points in the body
- the number of sacred sites throughout India
And there it was defined—the combination of the spiritual and physical, just like yoga itself.