October 28, 2013

My Most Challenging Yoga Class of All.

It’s not exaggeration to say that it when it comes to yoga, I have pretty much tried it all: Ashtanga, Kirpalu, Bikram, Iynegar, Yin, etc.

Some of them I have loved more than others—Ashtanga and Iyengar—while others—Bikram and Yin—not so much.

Still, in every case, I was able to get through every class of yoga I ever took with the exception of one. The one notable exception occurred nearly three years ago towards the end of yoga teacher training, and the only posture that took place was sitting in a comfortable seated position.

If anyone had told me that this would be my most challenging class ever, I would have laughed.

For nearly four months I had endured hours of chanting, sutra study and asana practice. After some weekends, the latter left with aches, pains and bruises that lasted for days. (Looking back, I estimate that I must have gone through at least a dozen tubes of arnica creams.) Now that the end was in sight, I thought that I was ready for anything. When I looked at the syllabus and saw that the first two hours on Saturday were going to be a guided meditation practice, I practically wept with joy. After all, how hard could that be?

The class started out promising. The serene, white-haired teacher had an air of peacefulness and serenity that immediately put me at ease. She briefly explained in a calm, reassuring voice that matched her appearance what mediation was and what we were going to do that morning. There were a few rules—indeed, the only one I remember was to try and acknowledge whatever thoughts and emotions popped into our heads. She rang a bell and the exercise began.

For the first 15 minutes or so, I was fine. My mind was full of usual mundane things: For instance, I remember wondering what I was going to have for dinner that night or if I was going to stop and fill up the car with gas on the way home or wait until the next day.

However, after 15 minutes, I was a mess.

I was amazed at how many mean, angry and decidedly un-yoga like things were coming to my mind.

I could not do this.

My eyes kept popping up to look at the clock on the opposite wall above me. I wanted this damn exercise to be over with now. I glanced at several of my fellow classmates and envied how peaceful and calm they appeared to me while I was feeling anything but that. In fact, the intense anger of my thoughts was starting to frighten to me. At several points, I felt like I was going into a full-blown panic attack and could feel the thump of my heart under my chest.

Given that I have a congenital heart condition, I decided it was a good idea to alert the teacher and tell her what was going on. She listened to me with genuine empathy when I explained in a halting, short sentences that I was “encountering some difficulties.”

She listened empathetically and said, “Take a break and resume when you are ready.”

I did as I was told and this time I decided that rather than fight and judge the things that were coming into my mind, I would instead try to go with them.

After a minute or so, I noticed that there was a definite theme to these thoughts. It turns out I was not as evolved and forgiving as I wanted to believe I was. I was not above pettiness like I wished to believe that I was—so many of the things that I despised in others were actually in me.

At times, the panic and heart palpitations returned and I would take a break. However, I went back to the exercise until, at last, the bell rang and the exercise was officially over.

The talk afterwards was a blur, but one thing I do remember as clear as a bell is the teacher saying that, “We are not our thoughts and our thoughts are not us.” As I recall, I was both confused and comforted by her words.

Later that evening when I was at home and had time to reflect on the day’s events, I was struck by how incredibly hard and yet how ultimately worthwhile the entire experience had been. It forced me to re-examine not only my life, but my intentions for practicing yoga in the first place. As much as I paid lip-service to “yoga is the cessations of the fluctuations of the mind,” the truth is, I really had no idea what that really meant much less how to achieve it.

Throwing myself into poses was easy.

The stilling of the mind and actually living a yogic life was another thing entirely.

I struggled with it and continue to do so to this day.

To this day, whenever I am asked what my most challenging yoga class ever was, I mention that class. Many people have a hard time believing it and I understand why: Until I was actually in that situation, I would have laughed at the idea as well.

As it turns out, though, it was the best way for me to “get” the true meaning of yoga. For that reason alone, I will always be grateful for the one yoga class that I could not master.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise

Photo: flickr/Ryan Oelke



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