Two years ago, I returned to yoga. And nothing in my life has been the same since.
I first took yoga in college to help with upper back pain. It was wonderful. My teacher was East Indian, and I loved his melodic voice encouraging us to “ba-reeth rythimicallleeeee”. He coached us through a classic Hatha Yoga practice made up of postures, or asanas, and resting meditations, and I performed everything easily. I left feeling good after every session. I did sun salutations in the morning every day.
Once the back pain stopped, I stopped yoga. Anytime in my twenties or thirties that I tried to start practicing again, I made it through two or three classes and then…..my lower back would wrench out, or I would become incredibly emotional, or ashamed of my stiff muscles, or I would start comparing my fitness to the others in the class, or I would decide I didn’t like the instructor, or my schedule would tie me up. One time my back went out so very badly, I couldn’t get up off the floor. Luckily I was taking class with a girlfriend who scooped me up and drove me home.
I decided that my body just didn’t like yoga.
When I started again, I sort of snuck myself back into it. Because if I stopped too long to think about what I was actually doing, my brain would start chatting about why it was impossible. And yes, my back did go out, and I went back to class. I went to acupuncture and kept walking through the pain and kept going to class. My back got better. And stronger.
My experience now is nothing like it was in my college years. Gone is the ease and grace with which I performed my yoga. I use the word “perform” intentionally. A few months ago my yoga instructor talked about the Westerner’s liability in yoga-the need to perform yoga perfectly. Instead of experiencing yoga, or practicing yoga-we Americans tend to attack it with a perfectionist attitude that leads to injuries and frustration.
I probably should mention here that the yoga I favor is Bikram yoga.
Bikram yoga is performed in intense heat. We’re talking 105 degrees. It is a specifically choreographed routine of postures and breathing exercises done in a 90-minute session. When I started, I was in my opinion, awful. My body just wouldn’t do what I wished it to. Like it used to in college. It didn’t look like I wanted it to either, and it was very rigid from years of aerobic exercise without stretching properly. My heart and lungs had not developed the strength to deal with the intense heat, and so I never made it through any of the postures without resting. I got nauseous and faint.
And I cried. Oh did I cry. Bikram yoga is as spiritually and emotionally cleansing as it is physically tonifying. Students are encouraged to look only at ourselves in the mirror and not to compare ourselves with others in class. All that looking at oneself in the eyes is very confronting. The tears and the sweat roll down in equal measure. Up come the hold-out damaging beliefs: like dandelion roots, that have sneakily remained underground even when I thought I got them all, the weeds that tenaciously block my soul: all my last-remaining self hate, repressed feelings, perfectionistic expectations, suppressed hopes and strength, ego-driven fears…..Bikram yoga helped me dig underneath them to pull them all out successfully.
The first class I took, I looked at myself in the mirror (there is a full-length mirror in all Bikram yoga studios at the front of the class, so you can keep your focus on yourself and help align the postures). I looked around the room at all the beautiful bodies, most of them barely clothed, and thought, “Wow. I really didn’t get the body I wanted this time around.” I wasn’t upset, just in acceptance and gentleness about it. I heard a voice say, “Well what are you going to do with the body you DO have?” And that began a deep journey to separate out my outsides from my self-esteem. I am much more motivated by self-care than I ever have been.
In a hard class, I love going up against my extreme expectations of myself, my need for perfection. To just surrender. Just standing up and breathing is sometimes all I can do-when I want to do so much more. My yoga practice has helped me ask myself, “Why is being accomplished so important? To any of us?” I’m searching deeper and deeper into myself for that answer, and as I journey I discover more parts of myself that I have neglected. More parts of myself I have abandoned for an image of the me I think I should be. The Grand Illusion.
In a class where it’s easy, I love the miracle of it. The surprise as I find a posture that has eluded me. The wonder of incremental growth. The joy of having stuck with it, with myself. What other things could I do if I believed in them enough to keep showing up?
I love finding out who I rightly am. My heart is more open. I naturally have the patience to use love and humor in situations which used to baffle me. I’m moving into a realm of radical self-acceptance that I never even knew I needed.
I love how clear my skin is, how my tendonitis is all but gone, how I stand up straighter, sleep better, hydrate better, eat and digest better, how my once borderline high blood pressure is back down into the normal range.
But most of all, I have begun to love being the most below-average yogi in the room. For I have learned more by being awful at yoga, and continuing anyway, then I ever would have learned being good at it.
Maybe soon I won’t even need to rank myself!