December 12, 2013

To My Fellow Practitioners, I Apologize. ~ Morgan McKniff

The instructor is talking of breath, control, and stillness, but none of those things existed in my world as I lie down and close my eyes. The world had just lost one of its kindest people, and for no good reason.

To my fellow practitioners surrounding my mat during this class, let me apologize in advance. You probably thought you were going to get your blood pumping, strengthen your muscles and focus and find bliss in relaxation. Sorry to the man to my left who asked me if he could bring water to his mat. I not only was unable to help you with your query with anything other than, “I have never taken a class from this instructor,” but I believe I will be more of a distraction than a sip of water could accomplish.

You guys all probably came to your mat because it is your safe place. I’m afraid that unfortunately for you, today it is also mine.

A few months into my practice, I actually learned how to do yoga. I had practiced at home and took classes regularly at a studio, but I suppose I wasn’t learning from very skilled instructors.

Even when I knew things weren’t quite right, I never got the “Aha!” adjustments I was after. I had asked instructors to move me, but few would ever lay a hand on me.

One day, I accidentally stumbled into a class I had not intended to take because the schedule for the studio I had was old. “Whatever,” I thought, “I came to take a class so I might as well.”

This instructor was tough about alignment, and wasn’t about going into a pose if you were off in the slightest. The class setting was always small. The most people I had counted once in that class was nine. It was an hour-long “Aha!” moment. She didn’t allow you to achieve an asana in any unsafe way that would cause injury over time. She was self-proclaimed “mean.” I even apologized about my awkward hand placement once after she adjusted me by saying, “Stop doing that with your hand. It’s weird,” something I often laugh about. I learned so much from her classes about asana and yoga beyond asana, but one of the most important things I learned from her was that my mat is my safe place.

Taking her class and classes from yoga teachers and friends that followed her lead led me to a whole new world of understanding my body on more than a physical level.

We would discuss how we feel in our bodies or how we feel within ourselves mentally. She would create classes meant to open deep emotional tension buried within muscles. In one class, during a forward fold after a particularly rough, deep hip opening sequence, I had felt emotions and memories rise in my mind that I had not felt in quite some time, bringing tears to my eyes.

Before a tear had a chance to drop down my forehead (mind you, I am in uttansana), the instructor declared that we are all probably experiencing a deep emotional release. I reflected on the experience with my friends also taking that class, and they said they had all felt similarly at the same time.

From that instructor, I learned a balance of control and release, alignment, and how to touch the emotional memory within my muscles and my body. Some days I would tap into something deep when I was not feeling any particular mood, whether it be anger, joy, sorrow, reverence, or a mixture of some or all. Other days I would walk into a class knowing my intention will be focused on something that is bringing sadness or happiness or fury into my life, and use my practice to nurture and mend the negativity. Unfortunately for my mat neighbors, today was that day.

I had not taken a class from this instructor. I had never taken a class in this studio. I had never even taken a class in this city. I had moved recently and maintained a home practice in the madness of moving. No steady job yet, so taking classes was not a luxury in which I felt I should partake.

But today I had lost one of my oldest friends. I was 2000 miles away from her when she passed, and had lost touch beyond the casual Facebook conversation.

When we had been geographically co-located, we shared a connection unrivaled to anybody I know. We related on things that we felt completely isolated us from others. I had just spoken to her on Facebook days ago, and now I will never talk to her again. Today, I stepped on my mat, and avoiding touching an emotional spot is pretty impossible.

I went into the class well-hydrated, fed, and ready to do yoga. I had the expectation of being a mess once I started. If I can awaken feelings within myself on a great day, how can I avoid awakening reactions to what has been at the forefront of my mind all day?

The class itself was great. The space was warm and inviting. The instructor had decades of experience. The practitioners were friendly. I went through my asanas without much focus. I had stepped on my mat expecting serious waterworks, emotional release pairing with the physical.

I had desperately hoped the practitioners around me sincerely focused on their practice and didn’t try to compare themselves to others so they would not witness what I was going through. As it turned out, I was calm, collected, but a little distracted at worst.

I thought perhaps my practice was only physical today. Maybe the challenging movement of my body counterbalanced the movement of my thought. It seemed this practice had shelved my emotional tension, and was ready to allow my body to relax. Apology retracted, mat neighbors. We all prepare to settle into shavasana.

The instructor is talking of breath, control, and stillness, but none of those things existed in my world as I lie down and close my eyes. The world had just lost one of its kindest people, and for no good reason. Where was control? Where was stillness? How is this within myself if I can’t even find the smallest evidence of it externally? I always found a peace in shavasana that grounded me.

This shavasana was like being too inebriated. I close my eyes, let my feet drop out, relax my shoulders and face, and attempt to let my breath guide me.

More talk of stillness from the instructor. I can hear the guidance he offers, and, as if my body is being vehemently defiant, my world feels as if it is spinning, faster and faster, out of my control. Drunken spins after a night of too much whiskey were not as bad as this. I try to hold on to my breath’s movement and lose the focus of my mind. I didn’t achieve the grounding stillness that I always seek in shavasana.

Instead, I let go of trying to fight the spin. I wasn’t in control. I was simply along for the ride. Silent tears made their way to my eyes, inevitably falling down past my ears to slide down my head. I spent some time reflecting on this experience after I gathered my things and left. Despite this shavasana being unlike any I had experienced prior, at the core of it is why I practice yoga.

My practice allows me to check my inner control freak, while strengthening myself in areas that control is within my reach. Yoga rarely rewards my expectation. To the contrary, my practice grows and surprises me most when I step on my mat with absolutely none.

I go to class thinking I will be an emotional mess, and my practice surprises me by quelling my grief. I go to class seeking a meditative savasana full of connection, and I find myself lost, swirling in a solitary tornado, only able to breathe.

Some days, I can’t stop the world from spinning. I can’t bring back old friends. I can’t stick my inversions perfectly. I can’t control what people think of me. I can’t be as graceful as I’d like when I dance. I can’t say all of the right things. I can’t nail every arm balance. I can’t look the perfect way. I can’t understand and help everybody. I can’t even always understand and help myself.

Some days, all I can do is breathe while the world is spinning.


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Assistant Editor: Richard May / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Jamie Hertter / 500px.

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