April 1, 2011

Don’t Bring Your Blankie To Yoga.

Tune in, turn it up, rock out.

I leave the yoga studio after class, jump in my Jeep and start her up. The Counting Crows come blaring on the radio. I change the channel immediately, surfing till I find something more amenable to my listening needs. Mumford and Sons, that’s better. Exiting the parking garage, I see that all three payment booths are open. I opt for the one with the automated teller so I don’t have to turn down my music and converse with anyone. On the road, I fiddle with the heat and air trying to perfect the temperature in my car, I take my sunglasses on and off as the sun weaves behind clouds and reemerges, I roll the window down to cool off and back up when it messes up my hair. I stop at the local deli and order my favorite sandwich hold the onions. Once home, I settle onto my couch to watch an episode of Weeds on Netflix; no commercials for me!

Oh the pleasures of being human! Welcome to the complacent life. Come on in, adjust the temperature, take a seat. All day long I tune out, opt out, avoiding what makes me uncomfortable. There’s always a beverage within arm’s reach, a phone/television/laptop to entertain me and most of the time a pair of sweat pants on my person.

We human beings can be distinguished from most other mammals not by our lack of body hair or impressively few legs, but rather our ability to adapt our surroundings to our wants (and notice I did not say “needs” here). I’m fairly sure our very evolution can be defined by our ability to eschew what and who we do not like. For every infomercial and pop-up ad that we are bombarded with, we are offered at least ten ways to avoid discomfort. Don’t like walking? Buy a car! Interpersonal communication not for you? Send a text! Headache? Take an aspirin.

At some point, somewhere in the valley of silicon, we traded in challenge for comfort, stalled in our armchairs, and became at best a little disengaged and at worst numb from the crown down. And even though yoga offers us the perfect antidote – engagement – tuning out can even sneak into your yoga practice. Been practicing Triangle with a block under your hand for five years now? Do you always skip out on backbends because your body’s “just not built that way”? Go for a pee when the teacher starts core work? Blame your difficulty in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana on your long legs and short arms? Try one kick up into handstand with a halfhearted grunt then flop into child’s pose till it’s over? Does your Navasana look like Savasana?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, it’s possible that you’re opting out of engagement and into comfort on your mat. Oh, and that girl on the mat next to you with the blissed out look on her face holding Chatturanga? She checked out too. About ten minutes ago. It happens to the best of us. Yoga is challenging by nature. It perches on one shoulder and rides us hard. It kicks our butts and asks us to step outside of our comfort zone. Then it puts us away wet. But over on the other shoulder is that gentler voice that says use a block, take a child’s pose, sit this sun salutation out so you won’t be too tired if we do handstand today, don’t break a sweat or you’ll have to straighten your hair again. We back off until our practice begins to resemble a sun lounger with a pina colada in the cup holder, which is lovely but doesn’t offer us much insight from which to grow. Then suddenly the teacher offers your favorite pose (you know, the one you can actually do) and snap you’re alive again!

This is why, about once a month, I make a point of writing down a list of all the poses I’m not doing in my yoga practice. I flip through my copy of Light On Yoga or pick up an issue of Yoga Journal and the gang’s all there: Hanumanasana, Vashistasana, Bird of Paradise, you name it, I’m not doing it. I write a few of them down and take a look. They all have something in common: I don’t like them. Because they’re hard. Or I’m not good at them. Or my body’s “just not built that way.” So each month I pick one and I start doing it. Every day. At first maybe I just throw it in halfway through my practice, three breaths on each side, and then collapse. After a couple of days I figure out why I don’t like it, and start to experiment with what poses I could do beforehand that would better prepare my body for it. Then I start to create whole practices that evolve towards it. I explore variations. I start teaching it every day in class (why suffer alone?). Then one day I’ll call out to my boyfriend and say “Come and look what I’m doing!’ Sometimes I make the poor sod take a picture. I engage my enemy. I master it. And one day I learn to love it.

What I’ve realized is this: what I already love shows me who I am. What I dislike can teach me a lot about how I am. Learning to embrace both allows me to become both who and how I want to be.

So since we’re all in this together, do me a favor. Check in. Show up with a smile and get ready to engage yourself on your mat. For god’s sake please don’t unroll your mat in the same place every class. Learn the difference in your body between “hard” and “hurt” and consider how engaging the former might just teach you something about who and how you are. Don’t explore the latter. Try something new. Like, really try. Respect the limitations of your body but dissolve the limitations of your mind. As one of my teacher’s says, if you can imagine yourself in a pose, one day you can do it. Don’t be afraid of sweating, grimacing, or grunting, we are not on a photo shoot here.

In short, tune in, turn it up, rock out.

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