The only thing we have to fear…is going to a yoga class?
Yesterday my husband told me about a conversation he’d had with a friend, encouraging her to come to one of my Vinyasa Yoga classes. “Quite honestly,” he said, “I think she’s scared of going to your class.”
To which I almost replied, “Why would anyone be afraid of yoga? Yoga, that lovely, breathing and moving wonderful thing that has saved and made my life?”
“Easy for you to say Ms. bendy-pretzel, yoga-selfies, instructor”, came a chorus of naysayers in my head before I could speak. “Hey, not so fast”, I silently scolded these mental hecklers, as it dawned on me that, once upon a time, I too felt afraid of attending a big bad yoga class.
Almost four years ago, I was living in New York City with a few months left to my yoga teacher training when my husband got a job in Colorado. As my yoga time in the city dwindled, I wanted to take advantage of all the legendary and inimitable yoga teachers there. I particularly wanted to take a class with Sri Dharma Mittra. Hence my fear!
I’d heard that Sri Dharma’s classes involved lots of upside-down-ness, without, gulp, a wall. Even though I was in a teacher training, even though I felt young and fit and flexible, I was terrified of being upside down. Headstand, handstand, forearm stand with a wall, even that was scary. Without a wall? Impossible. What would happen if I showed up for this class? Would they kick me out at the first forearm stand, leaving me to exit in shame with my tail between my legs as a sea of head-down yogis stared at me through upside-down eyeballs?
If you don’t believe me, here is an actual email conversation I had with a yogi friend asking if it was “crazypants” for me to go to the class:
On Mar 2, 2010, at 7:28 PM, Jean Marie Hackett <[email protected]> wrote:
Hi T: we talked about dharma mittra once….
Is it crazy pants for me to walk into his “master class”? I have to get to a class of his before i go, and i might only be able to make one. i am just afraid, b/c I don’t do handstand, or forearm stand without a wall……
Yes, you must go you will be fine. Sri, Sri [Dharma] is a sweetheart and a Master. Go and then let me know how you liked it.
So I put on my big girl yoga pants and I went.
My friend T was right. Sri Dharma is a lovely, sweet master of yoga. To be in his presence was incredible.
I was also right—the class was crazypants. Forearm stand, headstand, tripod headstand. All my fears came parading through his sequence, and I, terrified of the sea of feet in the air above me, stayed on my mat and I just did what I could. In forearm stand, (no wall, in the middle of the room – alert, alert, fear, alert!) I stayed in a down dog shape with my forearms (and toes!) on the ground, and breathed. No one kicked me out.
So this is the main thing I want any ‘scared of yoga’ wannabe and even already-yogis to take away from this story. As a Mysore teacher, that I deeply respect, recently said: “You just do what you can do.”
Look, I’m not advocating that brand new beginners walk into the most advanced class they can find. Newbies, in fact all of us, benefit from the basics. But, if you’ve already made the foray into those and other ‘exactly-at-your-comfort-zone’ classes, at a certain point you may want to stretch your legs onward.
For years I practiced yoga in classes and lineages that celebrated my special strengths—backbends, backbends and more backbends, please! And no inversions, no strength moves, no arm balances, no thank you! Years later I have steadily moved into Ashtanga, where I’ve learned to balance my hyper-flexible back with strong legs, strength moves, arm balances and inversions (all the stuff that I ain’t naturally gifted at) and concomitantly, to balance my once ego-driven practice (I hope) with a more than healthy dose of humility.
My old friend T was also right about this: I did like the crazypants Dharma Mittra class. I loved it, actually. Dharma Mittra’s class was one of my early experiences being with a teacher who, through his own years of dedicated practice, could look at me and see a vision of me far beyond the little one that I saw. A teacher who could show that vision to me, and empower me to rise to meet it.
And so, in Prasarita (wide legged forward bend), when the rest of the class was lifting their legs up into tripod headstand, and I stayed, stubbornly anchored to the floor, as well as to my small, fearful image of myself, Sri Dharma came up to me:
“If I was flexible like you, I would just bring my legs up like this,” (gesturing to lift my legs from the wide legged forward bend and, yes, I needed to get that quote in print at some point in my life).
Because Sri Dharma said so, so confidently and sweetly, and because he stood there, radiating all this indescribable energy, my toes peeled off the floor and there I was, standing on my head.
Thinking back on it, I can’t believe my fear of being upside down, and worse, my fear of judgment from other students in a class, might have kept me from having this experience. So now, I invite these fears.
I’ve loved much of the yoga I have practiced over the years, but nothing has made me grow or connect intimately with the light inside of me like Ashtanga, which asks me, day after day, to grow, evolve, and face my fears. I practice Ashtanga perhaps because I am no longer content to just get by. And yet, even with this challenging practice, my teacher has taught me that the practice is supposed to be malleable and healing. He has encouraged me to be kind to myself.
I’m not going to lie to you. You are going to encounter some fears in yoga, no matter what your practice. Maybe it will be the heat in Baptiste, the backbends in Bikram, the arm balances with that hand-stand happy Vinyasa teacher, I cannot tell you which practice has your number. I only know that I now practice Ashtanga, particularly because Ashtanga opens a conversation with my fears, my fear of being upside down, my fear of failing, my fear of being myself (my, my all the fears can seem endless!).
And from this dialogue, comes the realization that I can come out the other side as a better, stronger, more ME me. Everyday, I am a better, stronger, more ME me.
You show up—you just do what you can do.
And then one day, you find yourself doing a little more.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editorial Assistant: Ffion Jones / Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photos: Wikimedia Commons