“I can’t do that kind of yoga. It’s too slow.”
She stared at me with ice sheets for eyes, a look that darted back and forth, and when it hit me it seared right through and past me. I had just popped out of class and another gym member was asking me about the experience. She was a devout yogi who frequented advanced classes. Her eyes looked down on me even though I stood a few inches taller. If you do yoga every day, how is this kind of glare even possible? I thought. This question has popped into my mind more than once, I admit – because living in the modern-day yoga mecca that is Los Angeles, I see that glare a lot.
Just moments before this conversation, I had been lying on my mat with my hair pulled up in a tight bun, a hairdo I hadn’t visited in years. As a bright-eyed and eager college freshman, I used to pull it up with my bobby pins and my baby hands, my freakishly long locks still wet from my quick hop into the shower after my early morning workout before 8 a.m. ballet class. Those tight buns and suffocating leotards killed me. They hugged everything. We were forced to scrutinizingly stare in the mirror at not only ourselves but others, and we were forced to do the same poses over and over until the combinations were second nature. I could not do most of them. My legs were too muscular, my arches too low, and my knees ever so slightly bow-legged, which is apparently something that could have been fixed when I was a baby, but thankfully, my parents opted to keep me just the way I uniquely was. My lower back hyper-extended naturally, which no one told me was abnormal and no one thought to work with me on, so I was just ordered to tuck my pelvis more and more and my insides cried out in protest. Everything just felt completely useless. I looked at myself in the mirror next to the flat-chested, straight-waisted kid bodies and my overdeveloped womanly self felt even less like a dancer. And then I got skinnier and pulled my hair back tighter and I thought, at least I have that. At least I look the part.
I felt so alone.
Everyone else in my class was extreme and extroverted and charmingly childlike (in the way an undergrad should be, honestly), and I was so sad that I did not fit in. I kept doing the battement tendus to the front, side, and back, over and over and over again.
I became so used to a heavy bias toward routine with no balance. I fell in and out of love with my body by the day, I would eat the same things over and over and do the same workouts over and over and wear the same clothes over and over, and when I fell out of order I would fall into such deep depressions I would close myself off from any sort of interaction with the world and I would just snap. In hindsight, I was addicted to the distraction, addicted to the false sense of external purpose.
I know exactly when the turning point happened, when I stopped trying to look advanced and instead started to feel alive. It’s after I took up yoga and started practicing with mirrors in front of me – or at least reflective windows to my sides – giving me the completely optional choice of facing myself (and only myself) with no outside dialogue to distinguish right from wrong. It’s when I started doing yoga that was different each time, with encouraging cueing that was funny, personal – maybe flubbed – but with sequencing that fit the mood and themes of each day. It happened with classes aimed at working with my body to find my individuality, not against my body to conform to a molded chorus line of asana. It’s when my eyes were opened to the fact that everyone’s hip joint moves differently, so not everything is one-alignment-fits-all. It’s when teachers allowed themselves to ramble and quote and use phrasing unique to what resonated with their classes, use sanskrit if they liked (or not), use music if they liked (or not), sing if they liked (or not). It’s after I was given guidance in kind words, in helping hands, in hundreds and thousands of poses and variations and modifications so I could be okay with both my strengths and my weaknesses – because how do we honestly know that feeling of true triumph if we’re just homogeneously flowing through it all, if we’ve developed a sense of expertise and distraction that hinders our practice from changing shape day by day, literally and figuratively?
That shift from superficial routine to radical self-love happened after I realized that a lot of the trendy classes being offered were a bit harsh on my heart, populated by cliques who constantly tried to top one another with their impressive balances and their superhuman-like physical practice, talked at and not to others; it happened when I realized that living a curious and inclusive life is where it’s at. That shift happened after I realized that no yoga class is “too slow” if you are not afraid to sit with yourself. It’s after I quit working at a studio that made its teachers perform the same workout sequences over and over and over again, the place that I did the same set of poses over and over again each time I unrolled my mat. They argued it was a way to build confidence by developing expertise. I argue it was a way of developing and breeding addiction in addictive personalities.
When it comes to the look versus the feel of an advanced practice, it’s those who are used to the same set of fast-paced frenetic sameness or competition-based cliques that let addiction and fear lead the way. I love a good inversion or heart opener. But the poses that truly open your heart, the ones that are the most advanced, are usually the ones that are the least visually impressive. They are the ones that introduce you to all the nuances that make up your entire being. Because you genuinely cannot hold onto grudges or contempt when you have chosen to meet yourself. Even the people who hurt you, cheat you, take advantage of you – situations that continue to cause you more stress than you feel you can sometimes deal with – you can hold no lasting grudges when you choose to dive head-first into how and why you feel as uniquely as you do. In a truly advanced practice, you realize that the only one who can keep you in that downward spiral of sameness is yourself.
If you keep opening the same doors over and over again, realize that there is an untouched hallway ahead of you. A real advanced yoga practice will open doors and windows in your soul when you are still. When you are reaching your arms out in child’s pose. In a real advanced yoga practice, child’s pose might just move you to marvel in awe.
We cannot control our circumstances, but you bet we can control our level of awareness and our actions. Some people and occurrences drive us insane, sure. But we must choose to see those instances as small dust specks under the blanket of a good heart…or necessary hurdles, or lashes out from a person whose underlying loneliness or desperation may be beyond their comprehension.
I sat cross-legged at the end of class, my elbows grazing the curves in my torso and my thumbs finding their way to my heart through the sweat and muscle of my upper body. I felt my arms at my sides, those once-wispy limbs a part of ancient history; my legs muscular and probably even less ballet-friendly than they were years ago. It had been one of those weeks during which I hadn’t felt so hot about myself, but in the midst of things I had reminded myself that being highly sensitive and proprioceptive was a good thing; I had not freaked out because I knew that “this too would pass.” I had trusted myself to not know everything that was coming. I had trusted myself to learn, to listen, to be affected; I had trusted myself to cry and release when needed. I sat with my legs crossed in my skin-clinging workout clothes – ones that showed every curve and every protrusion and every little dimple – I sat there with my hair tied tightly in that little updo and closed my eyes.
A few hours later, I sit here typing with my leggings still on and that bun still sitting atop my head – I haven’t pulled it out, because it was never too tight. I sit here knowing my body will go through so many incarnations in this lifetime, and I’m going to treat it like it’s royalty no matter what. I sit here thinking about the class – the new quotes that were read, the jokes that were made, the funny analogies and the personalities in the room that were all of different levels and at times all did slightly different things. I had sat still. I’d taken breaks and tried new things. I’d fell down a few times.
I smile because I have not only a yoga practice on the mat, but off. I strive to be authentic, layer-peeling, free of addiction and crutches and sameness. I smile because I feel as if I am gliding down the hallway of my truest self, opening up the way door by door.
And I realize I am free, I am whole, I am love, and I am not afraid.