What I Learned from Twisting Myself Into a Pretzel
A yoga studio where I used to take classes several years ago had a note taped up in their bathroom that said, in essence: "If you notice what other yoga students are doing or wearing, than you are not doing yoga." It was much more complicated than that, but what I always impressed me about the message was that it told me that it didn't matter what others' paths were; my yoga practice was mine and mine alone, and like nobody else's. It reminded me not to compare myself with others in the studio, but only to concentrate on my own experience of yoga. I can barely remember how it was to practice at that studio (except that the receptionist brought her small parrot in occasionally to crawl around on the front desk) but I remember that message taped to the bathroom wall near the mirror.
In yoga, not only do we practice strengthening and stretching our bodies, paying attention to our breath, and always moving with physical and mental integrity, we also practice self-care. We go as deeply into poses as we can, and we even challenge our physical comfort, but we do not go so far as to cause ourselves injury. We are mindful of our own level of practice and we don't try to emulate others who are at different stages or who are simply different people than we are. Some days during our practice, we feel more open, more flexible, and have more stamina. Other days, we feel stiffer and get tired more easily. We learn to pay attention to where we are on any given day or minute, and to be OK with that, no matter what.
In another studio where I went to a couple of classes, I was really irritated by a guy who was practicing behind me. It was a mixed-level class. I consider myself an experienced beginner (even after years of practicing), and this guy was some sort of high-level yogi, so he was doing all these crazy variations on postures that ended up with him twisted in ways you wouldn't think the human body could twist. But through it all, he huffed. And he puffed. And he groaned. And he sighed. And he did it all loudly. It was like a bear was doing yoga back there. Like he needed to put on a show so we would pay attention to him. Come to think of it, I've seen this several times, and the groaners have always been men. Anyway, but boy, was I irritated! I just wanted him to shut up so I could concentrate on my own practice. And I was irritated because I felt like he was trying to show the rest of us up, to show how much more advanced he was than we were. I'll never know his actual motivation for making all those sounds that day, but what I realized - what yoga has taught me - is that it doesn't matter. My job is to concentrate on my own work and to do it with integrity, regardless of what's going on around me.
At yet another studio, a flier states that the energy of each person in the room effects the energy of the whole room. That if we are to dedicate our practice to helping support the others in their practice, then we must practice with intention, mindfulness, and presence. How deeply we go into the poses or which variations we choose doesn't matter as much as the quality of our presence and attention matters.
So from these messages I've learned:
- Concentrate on your own path, and not on the paths of others.
- Be mindful of where you are in any moment, and practice good self-care. Push yourself, but not enough to injure. Pay attention to what your body and senses tell you, and be OK with wherever you are in that moment.
- It is the quality of our presence that matters more than the details of our practice. The goal is not to be the most accomplished yogini; the goal is to move and act with integrity, openness, and mental and psychological flexibility and stability.
The funny thing about it is that I have no problem with these lessons as long as I'm doing yoga. But if I try to apply them to my life outside of yoga, I have trouble. The first lesson, for example, tells us not to compare ourselves to other people. I've gotten better at this, but the sight of some lovely, vibrant beauty with perfect skin and teeth still sets my own overly-large horse teeth on edge. And "be OK with where you are in the moment"?? In the yoga studio, I send myself compassion when, as happens frequently, I topple over in Tree Pose when I'm supposed to be elegantly balancing on one foot with my hands in prayer over my heart. But outside of the studio, any minor mess-up is accompanied by a curse under (or over) my breath. Oh well. Another lesson from yoga is that the journey is more important, in the end, than the goal. It's what we learn about ourselves from the practice that counts, not how far we can get our heels behind our ears. I can feel gratitude to my body and mind and how far we've all come together, and at the same time notice that I still have much to learn.