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We all do things because we want to be liked or accepted by other people, or because we think we “should.”
It may never cross our mind that the more that we pretend, the broader the gulf between who we really are and who we want to become.
For me, this pretence used to be yoga.
I remember the first time I did not hate a yoga class: it was the summer solstice and I went to a class in Times Square with my coworkers Denise and Amy.
The noise of the yellow cabs blurred into the background as if my body were being photographed by a macro lens that turned the background noise into a soft, smooth hum.
I tried to replicate this fuzzy bliss of the world falling away from me at Equinox, but I remember instead the grey-plaited teacher telling me how much our bodies must “love” a stretch that I found painfully excruciating and bordering on injurious.
After another teacher told me to feel the moon beneath my mat, I was disgusted, quit yoga, and moved on to other pursuits. Yoga was obviously not for me, no matter that one summer solstice outlier.
Years later, after multiple major life changes, my sister’s neighbour invited us both to try a hot yoga class.
Intrigued again, I found the heat had the same effect on the sound and the sensations of my body as the Times Square class. My first class felt like the kind of intensity and drama my body was looking for.
I wanted what yoga had to offer. But I didn’t consider if yoga wanted what I had to offer.
I practiced for 18 months at that studio, four to seven times per week.
My heart and soul had other ideas. I had recently moved and was looking to make new friends with whom I might have things in common. I was a movement teacher, so yogis seemed like a natural fit. After all, yoga, more than any other physical discipline, brings with it a community.
While my body liked the strength of the hot yoga standing series, my spirit never once felt like I belonged to the aforementioned social network.
Eventually, since my brain wouldn’t listen to this disconnect, my body did. I chronically dislocated one of my ribs while trying to manoeuvre postures in class. After months of chronic pain, take three of my yogic life came to a close.
In those days, I was a reluctant yogi.
I did yoga because I thought I should. But also because I thought I should want to. I was in the yoga target market age and stage.
I did yoga because I had a strong desire to make friends with other people I thought must be just like me. Only it turns out they weren’t just like me: they actually liked yoga in ways that I did not.
I did yoga because I liked the intensity, not the sun salutations.
I did yoga because I loved how strong the standing series made me feel. I don’t actually know if I loved the standing series itself. Still, an hour to get to the few poses I loved was a large investment that I didn’t consider. (I am extremely partial to the Eagle pose and Warrior Two to this day.)
There’s a period of life, for some of us, where we seek to know who we are. Yoga is a compelling place to look for ourselves.
I was looking.
I couldn’t have tried harder.
I literally blew out my ribs trying.
Yoga means union. But when we divide ourselves in two in order to do this practice of unity, we are not doing yoga. We are doing yoga-like physical movements. We are cleaving and contorting ourselves to be someone we are not.
My eventual return to yoga, ironically, was by way of my painfully, chronically dislocated rib. I was in such pain that I gave up my other disciplines—even my beloved pilates. Then I carried around a new shame of a teacher who didn’t do her own craft. Since this was not tenable, I moved into seeking mode again. And again, yoga landed in my path.
Like a lightning bolt, it occurred to me one day that I ought to do yin, even though I had no idea what yin was.
I decided to forgo the community and Google a private teacher instead. She had purple hair, cat-eyed glasses, tattoos, and our first meeting involved black coffee.
Nothing about her screamed “Lululemon” and it turned out that she had broken up with them.
From the moment we met, I didn’t feel like there was a single thing I “should” do or a person I was supposed to “be.” She wanted me to just be myself and let my body do the same, which was admittedly an unfamiliar sensation after a lifetime of seeking otherness.
This time around, I learned, reluctantly, to notice my body by way of nuances that I previously didn’t notice or feel because I was too busy moving. I learned to be still.
I learned to marinate in the sensations of stretch and stress, for no other inputs were coming. So I had to sit with the reality of the moment. I learned to embrace quiet.
I learned that my body and my emotions were one thing, not actually two separate things. So even if I thought I was outsmarting my body with those years of hot yoga, my mind was not a separate entity. I learned that a mind-body discipline doesn’t involve the mind pushing the body around.
I learned to honour my unique body and bone structure. I started to recognize that it doesn’t matter what the posture looks like, only what it feels like. Since my body will never be able to do Instagram-able postures, my clunky and awkward movements have a certain natural charm when allowed to just be.
After 12 to 18 months of private sessions, and a decade after that Times Square yoga class, I became a yoga teacher. This time, yoga was a welcome addition to my arsenal of certifications rather than my secret shame.
What most of us really want in life is to feel comfortable in our own skin. We want to have pain-free, functional bodies and sound minds that allow us to experience life with all its myriad of sensations. When we find a discipline that allows us to become who we really are, it’s a sensation of alignment and of coming home to ourselves and our bodies.
These days, I am no longer a reluctant yogi. I teach my own flavour of yin five days a week. I teach to the type-A’ers and to the seekers who want to be more comfortable in their own bodies and minds. Most of my students are not “yogis” in any traditional sense of the word. But what makes us yogis together is a path of seeking greater understanding, not a path of wanting to fit a mold.
I teach from a place of understanding this desire to know thyself and to learn how to just be. For I, too, was once a reluctant yogi.