Thursday, March 26, 2009

Yoga And I

When I started doing yoga almost a decade ago, I threw myself into it with my usual fervor, determined to be the star of the class.

As chimes tinkled in the breeze and the instructor urged us to breathe and breathe again, my inner monologue went something like this:

Touch my toes? Not only can I touch my toes, but look, I can put my hands flat on the floor! Lie on the floor and raise my legs at a 90 degree angle? No problem. See how straight my legs are? Other people can't get them this straight—they have to bend their knees a little. Touch my heels to my buttocks? My toes to my nose? Look at me. I can do it all!

My silent monologues went on for weeks. And all the while I couldn't understand why the teacher didn't stop the class and point to me as an example of yogic excellence. I'd been getting praise from my teachers all my life—in fact, that's what my life had been all about—and suddenly I wasn't getting any.

During those fleeting moments when my inner voice fell silent, I would hear the teacher droning on, saying things like: listen to your body. It doesn't matter what other people do—it only matters what you can do. Honor your body and its limitations. Be here now. And other stuff in that same vein.

Somewhere into my fifth year of practice it dawned on me that yoga is supposed to be a non-competitive sport. I had been doing it wrong!

Well, I could fix that, and show them. So I threw myself into non-competitiveness. I clamped my eyes shut and went deep inside my body, listening to the secret squeaks and cracks of tendon and bone, trying to discern the flow of energy, breathing into the tight spots. Were there other people in the class? They could kick me during stretches, wobble before me while doing tree pose, but I didn't see them. I didn't even sense them. I was being non-competitive, with a vengeance.

But deep inside my incurably Westernized brain a little flame kept burning, a little flame of hope that somebody out there—my teacher, another student, a dog—would recognize my non-competitiveness and give me a gold star.

Ten years later, that little flame still flickers, despite the lack of gold stars. I did get praised by one teacher for my ability to spread my toes. And a very tall fellow student once called me “a little pretzel.” But no one has said a word about how well I do the hardest pose of all, the non-competitive pose. I'm trying to breathe into the little flame—maybe blow it out—but I don't know how much longer I can stand to hold the pose.

8 comments :

  1. this made me chuckle.

    i tried yoga once. i am definitely not a little pretzel

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  2. Wonderful. You gave me a good chuckle, too.

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  3. Perfect post. My sister quit yoga in NYC because it was too competitive.

    As you know, I have always been envious of your flexibility. (I do occasionally peek during classes.) There's no point in my getting competitive in yoga because, well, I'm just not good at it. I'm still a beginner after a decade.

    This made me think of a fairly amusing Demetri Martin skit I saw the other night about the Men's Passive-Aggressive 800 Meter Race. I suggest you take a look:

    http://www.comedycentral.com/shows/important_things/index.jhtml?sicontent=0&sicreative=2715621700&siclientid=1838&sitrackingid=57654963&kw=demetri&gclid=CKy34LG7w5kCFYJM5QodFhg1vA

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  4. Annoyingly, that link only takes you to the page with all the clips. Go to the list of clips on the left, scroll down to Games - Passive Agressive Race.

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  5. I love that second-last paragraph. A gold star for non-competitiveness.

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  6. Laurie and Joya, well, at least my deadly-serious struggles to attain Zen-like detachment are making some of you laugh.

    Indigo, I guess if yoga ever turns into a competitive sport it will be in New York. I must say that my many yoga teachers--I must have had a dozen of them--all emphasized non-competitiveness. BTW, the video is hilarious!

    Bridgett, Indigo just gave me a gold star for flexibility. Made my day!

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  7. Well, here I have to comment, but then you already know how good you are in your poses and in your truth. Maybe you have reached Samadi. "Each step forward in our practice is a step inward. To practice yoga is to draw ever closer to the truth. As we learn to relax into our truth moment by moment, breath by breath, posture by posture, the need for pretense starts to fall away. We find that we are shedding the layers of armor we've created to protect the false self we present to the world. But as the armor falls away we are confronted by the old fears that created the armor in the first place and that have held it in position for so long."

    --Rolf Gates

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  8. Wise words. Wish all those people who conduct yoga classes like Olympic competitions could read them.

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