It’s the third week of January and the gym is where it’s at. Despite what you hear about everyone showing up on January 2nd, the truth is the biggest crowds at the gym and in my yoga classes typically arrive during the second and third weeks of the new year. It’s as if folks need to rev up a bit before sliding into their new spandex. Maybe they’re still digesting. As exhilarating as it is to absorb the energy of classes bursting at the seams, I also know the liveliness is predictably short-lived. By Valentines Day, the parking lot thins out, your favorite elliptical trainer is always open again and your cherished spot in the yoga room–that special patch near the warm sun that beats down on the hardwood floor is ready and waiting for your mat every time.
It always makes me a little sad.
January–pregnant with possibility and full of fresh faces–is a heady time. With every new yogi who crosses the threshold of my class and plants their feet on a sticky mat, I wonder how the practice will land in them. I’m excited by what they haven’t yet discovered. And I say a little prayer that they’ll stay long enough to find out. In the spirit of the still-new year, here are the first three things this yoga teacher would like you to know. Next week, I’ll share three more.
THING ONE: NO ONE IS WATCHING YOU
My classes have heard me say that’s the good news and the bad news. And it’s not fake news–it’s the absolute truth. The only person really watching you is me and I’m mostly watching your feet in standing poses. Sometimes I notice that transcendent moment when you fully immerse yourself in the present tense and your face beams with peace. It sends a shiver down my spine and reminds me of why I love my job.
I clearly remember my very first yoga class. Taught by an elegant and graceful ballet teacher, I felt awkward and ugly and self-conscious. In my embarrassment, I let a giggle slip through and was immediately reprimanded by the steely gaze of the teacher. It had taken me two full years to build up the courage to step into a public yoga class and that first class was not full of bliss and rainbows. I’m a bit stubborn, though, so I kept coming back.
Butts high in the air, legs splayed wide, soft underbelly exposed. Muscles trembling. Vulnerable. Uncomfortable. It’s all a part of yoga and you can bet that everyone else around you is feeling some variation of the same and not the least concerned about you and your funny-looking feet or tattered sweat pants.
A huge part of our practice in yoga is dropping our ego–the part of us that shows up with something to prove. That part of us that feels shame when we take a spectacular tumble out of a balancing pose. The same part that puffs us up when our lunges are deeper, our transitions smoother, our inversions braver than the person’s next to us. The very part of us that is defined by external sources, rather than who we truly are beneath the surface. Comparison is the thief of joy and yet it’s one of the hardest things to let go of.
No one is watching you, but for your own sake, wear clothing you are comfortable in. More importantly, wear clothing that doesn’t ride up, slide down or fall off. Secure your hair so you’re not distracted by sweaty strands tickling your eyes, nose and mouth. It was during my first experience in a heated studio when I realized that my modest choice of a baggy, cotton t-shirt had become utterly revealing once soaked and heavy with sweat. The shirt clung and slid and draped over my head in every Downward Facing Dog. I spent at least half of that class managing my clothing rather than practicing yoga. The very next week, I bought several snug tank tops that stayed in place even upside down. Not having to fuss and fiddle with my clothes blew the roof off my yoga practice.
And then, your feet. Can we all agree that feet are weird? I know mine are. Feet are the strangest things, and pretty miraculous, too.
Take your shoes off and lose the socks. Bunions, hammertoes, blackened toenails and all. Unless you have a medical condition with which you’ve been instructed to never go barefoot, take your shoes and socks off. I guarantee your weird feet will not be the most hideous in the world and the benefits to being barefoot on your mat are invaluable. Spend some time spreading your toes and wiggling them about. Stick your fingers in between your toes and stretch them wide. Yoga will strengthen weak feet, stretch tight ones and enliven even the deadest dogs. Yoga teaches us what it feels like to stand balanced on our feet and up into our legs and core. Our feet are our important connection to the earth. Let them see the light of day.
No one is watching you. It’s bad news for some of us who have defined our worthiness through the gaze of others. What happens when no one is watching you anymore?
It becomes about the intimate relationship between you and yourself.
THING TWO: TAKE YOUR TIME
We want it now. Maybe even yesterday. Yoga doesn’t work that way.
One of my favorite teachers, Christina Sell, introduced me to the idea of “making the easy poses hard.” It’s how I teach most of my classes now.
Mountain Pose. Tadasana. Standing tall at the top of our mat. Balanced. Strong. Alert, yet open and soft. Mountain Pose is the foundation of most of our practice.
Teaching yoga in a Y brings the most diverse cross-section of yogis to my classes. I also get a lot of athletes in my classes. Triathletes, marathoners, competitive swimmers and a whole array of past college and high school jocks who strut into a yoga class expecting it to be a pleasant, easy stretch.
While your yoga practice will give you a nice stretch, it will also ask much, much more of you if you stick around long enough to listen. It will teach you the importance of building a strong foundation first. It will teach you that showy, fancy poses are nice but without the foundation to support them, they become a hot mess with potential to injure. A good yoga practice will bring to light our impatient nature, our persistent ego and our need to be more and more and more rather than softening into the acceptance that we are–right now–enough.
If you have been an athlete for most of your life, you know what it means to push through. I imagine you are made of grit and determination and know how to dig deep. Maybe you’ve even defined yourself through your physical accomplishments. But do you know what it feels like to dial it back? To soften your belly rather than constantly suck it in? To rest when your body needs it rather than just keep going?
Disembodied humans walk into yoga classes every day. While it’s easy to characterize disembodiment as folks who haven’t moved or exercised much, I also see shades of disembodiment in serious athletes. Imagine the runner who continues to train despite stress fractures and hip pain. The competitive weight lifter who ignores her angry rotator cuff. My classes are full of yogis who are quick to reach for the furthest, most advanced variation offered of any pose, come what may. Jaws clench and twitch. Try harder! Go deeper! Just do it! Suddenly, being balanced and strong, soft yet alert, breathing deeply in that sweet spot between ease and effort flies right out the window.
Are you even breathing? Dial it back, baby.
If you want to catch your top leg in Ardha Chandra and come into the deeper, more challenging Ardha Chandra Chapasana, invest some time working on your Virabradrasana 2 and Parsvakonasana. If you want to balance well on one leg, make absolutely sure you know what it feels like to be well-balanced on two. Learn what it feels like to open your hips versus square them up. If you are obsessed with mastering Urdhva Dhanurasana, understand what it feels like to be rooted in your legs and how to begin to move the curve of your spine deeper into your body through poses like Bhujangasana and Salabhasana first. Handstand? Log some time opening, stabilizing and strengthening your shoulders in a well-aligned Downward Facing Dog and lots and lots of core.
Drop your goals and your ego and just show up. I know, it’s not as sexy as you imagined. Or as easy as you hoped.
Do it anyway.
THING THREE: SOMETIMES I HATE YOGA
I’ve broken up with yoga so many times I’ve lost count. My relationship with yoga is not unlike most of my relationships in my life. Sometimes, we break up. We often misunderstand each other. We take each other for granted. Miscommunicate. Feelings get hurt.
It’s not you, yoga. It’s me.
Almost always, it’s been me. I am far more flawed and culpable than yoga will ever be. I try too hard or not nearly enough. I have expectations of the practice that have no roots in reality and when I am disappointed, I slam the door and walk away. Like a lot of friends, yoga will hold a mirror up to me and ask me to look at my reflection honestly. Like a lot of friends, that makes me mad–or at least pretty squirmy–and I distance myself for awhile. I often make my yoga practice way more complicated than it needs to be and then complain about it being so bloody complicated.
It is so simple.
Like most relationships, just show up. Not with expectations or bells and whistles, but as you are. A hot mess some days. Beautifully stunning and full of grace on others. Most days, though, in muted shades of gray and blue with soft, malleable edges and a willingness to be fully human.
Yoga has been in my life for nearly twenty years now. I once read that if someone has been in your life for seven years, they will likely be in your life forever. There is an ebb and flow to even the sturdiest, most enduring of relationships. The true test is whether or not both parties are willing to ride through the stormiest swells as well as the gentle, lapping waves.
I think I’ll keep showing up.