“High plank. Low plank. Upward facing dog. Downward facing dog.”
I was taking a class at a yoga studio that I hadn’t been to before, and the instructor was shouting out poses like a perky drill sergeant as sweat dripped from foreheads and noses, making puddles on yoga mats and filling the room with a musky humidity.
Still, I’d taken a few weeks off from intense yoga after hurting my shoulder rock climbing, and it felt good to be back in a hot studio.
“High plank. Low plank. Up dog. Down dog.”
This was the kind of studio where almost every yogi comes dressed in Lululemon from tights to tank to headband, and pops into handstand at every available opportunity. Like their feet just won’t stay on the ground.
Basically, it was the kind of place that makes me nervous and tends to get my defenses up.
“But everyone is here to do yoga,” I reminded myself, “No one cares that you have a hole in your on-sale TJ Maxx yoga pants.”
“Hi. Low. Up. Down.”
The perky drill sergeant’s commands became terse as we cycled through endless sun salutations. My shoulder was starting to feel sore, but no one else was backing off, so I kept at it. I might not have Lulu, but I do have a lovely Chaturanga.
By the time we made it to the wheel series, I knew I’d overworked my shoulder. A sharp pain stung the top of the joint when I extended it, pushing up into wheel. Finally, I backed down into bridge pose.
Ego is a funny thing. It’s easy to recognize it everywhere but in yourself. The guy next to me whose Ujjayi breath had turned into a series of grunts as he torqued his body to bind in extended side angle? Total egomaniac, right?
The woman in front of me who was straining for the floor in Trikonasana? Girl, touching those toes won’t bring you any closer to enlightenment.
I never thought of my ability to pump out vinyasas, or to bend backward like a cheerleader into Urdhva Dhanurasana, wheel pose, as something that defined me. They’re just something I can do. Achievements made so long ago that now they feel as natural as running or jumping.
And yet here I was, pushing through the pain rather than accepting my injury and backing off. Accepting that some yoga poses I could usually do were not going to happen right now.
I’ve practiced yoga regularly for five years. I’ve been through yoga teacher training and have students of my own. I consider myself fairly well-versed in yoga asana and philosophy.
But here was this huge, un-yogic ego wad that had been hiding in my subconscious unaddressed.
I knew that taking every vinyasa in that power class—or even just a few—was going to do more harm than help. I knew that hyperextending my shoulder into wheel pose was going to hurt. But here I was trying everything. Just testing it out to see how much damage I would really do if I kept going. Trying to find my edge by jumping over it and then hoping I’d be able to crawl back.
Ego is a funny thing. Of course I’d never push one of my yoga students to work through an injury the way I was trying to, and I wouldn’t feel like a very good yoga teacher if I knew a student was doing what I was. If one of my friends told me that they had same injury I did, my advice would be to rest your shoulder. Which, incidentally, was what all my friends were telling me.
It wasn’t until I realized that the “advice” I was giving myself was pretty much the exact opposite of what I would tell a student or friend in my situation, that I allowed myself to back off in my yoga practice.
“You are your best teacher,” is a platitude that gets tossed around yoga classes frequently. But a lot of the time, it’s hard to decide which voice is the one trying to teach you something. Especially when your ego is operating in “what-doesn’t-kill-you” mode and we’re so often encouraged to suppress the voice asking for a break.
How often do we push ourselves through unhealthy situations—physically, emotionally, in our careers, in our relationships—because our ego says that giving up would be weak? Because the ego assumes “giving up” and “letting go” are the same?
I wish I could give an easy formula for determining whether something is worth struggling for, or if it’s time to stop listing to your loudmouth ego, let go, back off and surrender.
It would make my life a lot easier.
I think knowing that there’s a difference between “giving up” and “letting go” is a good first step. So is starting to recognize your own habits. When a yoga pose starts feeling uncomfortable do you jump out at the first twinge of a muscle tiring? Or, do you grit your teeth and push through until something breaks?
Clearly, I lean toward the latter. Since I recognized my own nasty little ego habit, I’ve realized that a lot of times what I’d been calling “tenacity” was “desperate clinging” at best, and “emotional masochism” at worst.
Ego is a funny thing. And it’s even funnier what happens when you let go, listen to it a little less, and listen to the softer, quieter voice saying “help” a little more: You start to heal.
Lauren Huefner is a yoga teacher, rock climber and aspiring writer living in Northeast Ohio. She’s always looking for new opportunities and her next big adventure. Get in touch at [email protected]
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Ed: Terri Tremblett & Brianna Bemel