Our minds are like monkeys.
Yoga teachers say this all the time. They also like to tell us that we must learn how to control our monkey minds, or our monkey minds will control us. According to, well, everybody, this is a practice that is often much harder than disciplining our human bodies. Being congenitally lazy, I can’t say which is harder. Because everything about yoga is hard for the congenitally lazy. All those push-ups. All that mind-control. Yeesh. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
Anyway, the first thing we’re told to do on our quest to control our monkey mind is to start witnessing our thoughts. I once had a yoga teacher in New York tell me and the rest of her class that we had a little watcher inside our minds, witnessing our every thought. Like a little stalker. We were listening to the Police as she spoke, and she ended her sermon by saying, “Your witness is always there, always somewhere nearby. So that every move you make, every breath you take, you’ll be watching you.”
Well. That sort of inner-stalker situation doesn’t actually appeal to me. And you know what? I don’t like the monkey mind, either. Personally, I prefer to think of my mind as a really friendly, smart, tool-making chimp, and the part of me who knows this is my inner Jane Goodall. I am the chimp, and I am the watcher of chimps.
But that might be my ego talking. If I’m honest with myself, all it takes is about three minutes of observing the meanderings of my mind to force me to admit that my mind really isn’t as evolved as a chimp. My mind is more of a tiny capuchin monkey, with red fez and vest: an utter spaz of a monkey who seems to think that negative, fearful thoughts are actually irresistibly-delicious bananas strewn across the landscape of my skull. My mind-monkey rehearses every fear, imagines unpleasant scenarios, gets so worked up about the potential disasters I’ve concocted that it forgets the fact that they’re essentially fictitious before running on to the next unpleasant, banana-flavored thought. My inner Jane Goodall throws up her hands in disgust and abandons me.
It’s a constant battle to keep my monkey mind calm. In yoga classes, I look around me at the other students and wonder if I’m better or worse than them. I think about all the foods I’m looking forward to eating after class. I wonder, and I debate, and I worry. I make to-do lists. If my inner stalker chooses to check in on my inner monkey, it can’t help but notice that the obstacle that keeps the postures from becoming a moving meditation is me. The person keeping me from immersing myself in my practice is me. Me, thinking about me.
The Bald Soprano
Not too long ago, I thought of this as I set up my mat in one of my favorite classes at my yoga studio, a class taught by a woman with a great sense of timing and an amazing iPod mix that changes with every class. This teacher, Karen, is the one who reminded me that we can make an offering out of anything — out of doing the dishes, writing a book, or of our daily yoga practice — and that if you give your mind something to chew on, like a dedication or an offering, it can have miraculous results.
Normally I don’t start looking around at my yogamates until after the class begins. But that afternoon, it was hard not to notice that the woman on the mat next to mine had lost her hair. She had a few wispy curls on her crown, but that was it. Her skin had the papery texture of a person who’s been through a lot of chemo lately.
I had recently attended the funeral of a family member who had died in her sleep, unexpectedly, in her early twenties. I hadn’t known this cousin well, but even so, I felt a little raw when I looked at the woman on the mat next to mine, and I felt the urge to help her in some small way. But what could I do? Tell her I was going to invest in a pink ribbon later? No, there wasn’t anything to do. She probably was in class to lose herself for a while — to forget she had cancer. I could only imagine what her monkey mind was up to.
We started off chanting the Gayatri mantra, and this woman next to me could sing! She looked like I could knock her over with a sigh, but she had a powerful set of pipes on her. So I started to think of her as the Bald Soprano. We closed our mantra with three aums, and Karen asked us to set our intentions for class. “Maybe,” she said, “there’s someone out there you’d like to dedicate your practice to, someone who you’d would want to benefit from your focus and energy today.”
Karen says this pretty much every week, and I pretty much always have the same response: You know, there is someone special I’d like to dedicate my practice to! Someone real special, all right. Someone named Suzanne Morrison.
But there was this woman next to me, see, and quite spontaneously I thought, I’ll do it for her.
Yes, that’s what I would do. I would carry her on my back through the entire class. I wouldn’t let up my energy because it was for her. If she couldn’t hold a pose, I would psychologically hold her in it myself. So as we started with some gentle Cat-Cows, I thought of how my body was stretching for her, that it was her spine I was awakening with the postures. I imagined that, by keeping her with me through every pose, I could fill her body with more energy and power: everything she would need to heal and get well.
Well. It worked. Carried on my mental back, she threw herself into the first rounds of sun salutations, extending and lunging deeper than anyone else in the class. And so I did too. You know, in order to help her. When we focused on standing postures, she chose the hardest variations and held them the longest. So I did too. I was her support system, remember? Without me, she might have fallen out of that headstand she held for ten minutes. She might not have had the strength to do that third full wheel. There came a point in class when we were given the option of resting in child’s pose or moving through vinyasa when I felt her jump into plank and thought, Whoa there honey. Slow down. We’ve got cancer, remember? We can’t possibly have this much energy. And then I focused on my breath and jumped into plank beside her.
I had to stay with her. I had dedicated my practice to her. So while the wimps in the class rested in child’s pose as I normally would do, the Bald Soprano and I did not one, but two extra vinyasas, lowering ourselves in a pushup, holding it, springing back to up-dog, then over the tippy toes to down dog.
I began to wonder if she was actually an actress playing a woman with cancer.
Surrendering my ego
But here’s the thing: at the end of class, I realized I had surrendered myself to my practice. Apart from a few moments of shock — she’s doing another handstand?! — I had somehow managed to stay present in each posture, my mind focused on what was actually happening right now. My mind was engaged with reality for most of those ninety minutes. And even if it was plainly absurd to imagine that she had needed me at all, even if it was obvious that she was in fact a stronger, more disciplined yogini than I have ever been or ever hope to be, my offering to the Bald Soprano had become one of the most focused, disciplined classes of my entire life, and all because I was thinking about someone other than myself.
It occurred to me when I got home that I could train my mind on any dedication and have the same effect of surrendering my ego and my monkey mind to something larger than myself. And I could dedicate my practice to anything I wanted! A yoga sutra. A person I love. A country in peril. The world.
This is what I love about yoga, this difficult practice I can’t seem to stop doing: one tiny discovery, and I have found a way to feel united with the world around me. And, for ninety minutes a few times a week, liberated from myself.
Suzanne Morrison is a writer and solo performer who lives in Seattle with her husband and a delightfully inbred cat named Riley. Her first memoir, Yoga Bitch: One Woman’s Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment will be published by Three Rivers Press this month.