I am a woman of my word. As promised, here is Part Two of Three Things this yoga teacher would like you to know.
THING FOUR: COME AS YOU ARE
Inflexible. I can’t touch my toes. Too fat, too old, too type-A for yoga.
Tired. Weak. Cranky. Overwhelmed with grief. Overwhelmed with life. Depressed.
Imagine having a friend who not only accepted you in all those states, but met you there, too. A friend who didn’t show up and try to cajole or trick you into feeling something differently so that they can feel better, but a pal who met you right where you are.
We are conditioned to put on a happy face when all we want to do is cry. At an early age, we learn that it is preferable to do things well, rather than struggle and risk falling on our face. We learn what shame feels like. Some of us get proficient at denying how we feel in an effort to stoically soldier on–no matter what–and that denial becomes a way of life. And yes, there are plenty of days when we have to drag ourselves out of bed and fulfill our responsibilities, even when we would rather not. That’s called being an adult. But being a yogi means showing up for yourself without the mask.
Yoga asks you to show up as you are. It couldn’t care less that you were once a star athlete or presently overweight or can’t begin to touch your toes. Instead, it asks you to bring your whole, messy, imperfect self to your mat and see yourself as you are.
I once took a yoga class in which the teacher was constantly encouraging us to smile. She oozed saccharine-sweetness and spoke in a singsongy voice and it was irritating as hell. I never went back and I wondered about the woman right behind me whose mat was tucked in the back corner and wept softly in savasana. How had she felt about the cheery promptings? In my teacher training, my teacher would always insist that I set up smack-dab in the middle of the room, rather than my preferred corner pocket. I understood why she did that–taking me out of my comfort zone time and time again taught me invaluable lessons and helped me grow. But in my class, come as you are. I promise I won’t ask you to smile or insist you not tuck yourself into the corner on those days when that’s exactly what you need.
I will trust that you are taking care of yourself and I’ll be really glad you came.
Come as you are in your paint-stained Target yoga pants with the holes in the knees. Come as you are with red-rimmed eyes and a heart so heavy you worry it might spill right out of your chest in child’s pose. Bring your soft belly and your shaky thighs, your sinus headache and unwashed hair. And on those days when you’re exhausted and can’t imagine moving a muscle, come then too, and see where it takes you. Maybe nowhere. Maybe somewhere surprising.
Your ego says “fix yourself up, be presentable and proficient.”
Your yoga practice laughs and reminds you that you, right now, as you are, are enough.
THING FIVE: YOGA IS NOT A LINEAR PATH
I spent my younger days as a runner and then later, as a pretty serious weight-lifter. There was something wonderful about knowing that if I put in the disciplined effort, my muscles would get stronger and I could run longer and faster. I was all about setting, meeting and blowing through goal after goal after goal. I thrived on gritting my teeth and working harder. While there is nothing wrong with hard work and setting goals for oneself, the “more is better” mentality conveniently fed into the same compulsive nature that my anorexia did just a few years prior.
Yoga doesn’t work that way. Yoga is like peeling an onion.
The onion analogy is a common one because it’s accurate. As we begin a yoga practice, we unpack our stiff muscles and find a deeper breath. After a month of regular practice, we feel more steady on our feet, our legs stop that uncontrolled quivering and we might even sleep better. We fall in love a little bit and begin to use words like “magic” and “amazing” when we chat with skeptical friends. And then it happens: we stick with it long enough to peel back that next layer, we dive in just a bit deeper and we are brought to our knees, sometimes quite literally.
Arms shake where they were once steady. Breath catches where it used to flow. We struggle where we used to feel competent. What once was blissful becomes unfamiliar and uncomfortable. And we might begin to avoid our practice.
Don’t stop, but don’t force it, either. Harder physical effort is usually not the answer when we reach that place–that tender layer beneath. Don’t stop, but do slow down and pay attention. What lies beneath? Is it an old injury rearing its head? A place of trauma? Does it feel like fear? Grief? Don’t stop, but listen and trust that something is happening–working out, working through–even when you lose your flashy arm balance or suddenly traditional pigeon pose feel counterintuitive.
I believe this non-linear path of yoga is one of the reasons we often say yoga is not so much of a work out as it is a work in. Yoga is a holistic practice, meaning that it incorporates not just our physical self, but mind, body and spirit. Sure, you might stretch your hamstrings so you can touch your toes, but it will also shine a light on those more deeply embedded places within you–those fragile, eight-year-old-you wounds and other scratchy abrasions to your soul that are crying out for a bit of healing.
And what lies beneath? Often, a new layer of freedom. Perhaps a glittery gift of dissolved tension, the release of that nagging pain. Maybe that morning waking up without the shadow of dread peeking around the corner.
One layer at a time.
THING SIX: SOMETIMES YOU CRY IN SAVASANA
The yoga studio was packed wall-to-wall with aspiring yoga teachers and a couple dozen other folks looking for their Saturday morning yoga fix. It had been a sweaty practice, as it always was at that 90-degree studio, and I had felt strong and confident and zoned-in to my zen. The teacher cued us through our final twist and then we laid back on our mats for savasana, our final rest. Music began to play and as the first few chords rang out, I felt a bubble of emotion rise up in my chest. The bubble floated up to my face and my lips twisted as tears stung my eyes. I held my breath in fear of letting out a loud, gasping sob. I covered my face with a towel and tried too hard not to cry.
What is happening? I screamed to myself. I had felt so good, so balanced, so strong. It hadn’t been a weepy practice; the teacher hadn’t even said anything particularly profound that morning. Why, why, why?
When I was in second grade and being teased, I would start to cry and begin to panic when I felt like I couldn’t stop. Which was often. Wave after wave of sobs. Gasping for air. Shaking sobs. I felt out of control and ashamed of myself.
After the yoga class, I sat up and wiped my face with my towel, convinced that the sweat and tears and snot would be indistinguishable from each other and no one would know how close to losing control I had come. I quickly gathered my things and escaped to a nearby park. In the middle of the grassy clearing in an empty park on a hot July afternoon, I sat alone and let myself lose control.
Do you ever get the feeling that sometimes you’re releasing really old, almost ancient shit? my massage therapist once asked when we were discussing emotional releases in the physical body.
Sitting cross-legged in the park on that summer day, I let out some rusty, corroded, moss-covered shit. So ancient, so buried beneath the facade of coping well that I couldn’t even begin to identify it. I wept openly, my tears like a baptism, purging and releasing. Afterwards, I stood up, smoothed out my yoga pants and felt renewed.
Years earlier, as my mother lay dying, I pulled one leg over the other in a reclining twist at the end of another yoga class in a different studio. My mother’s face, so clear and smiling, popped into my vision. Not quite an apparition, but not quite of this world. I felt startled, but the twist rippled through me like a sigh, like a deep breath out after so much pain. It was fresh and identifiable. Lying in savasana, I sensed the warm trickle of subtle tears sneak out the corners of my eyes as I mourned my mother slipping away from me.
Our bodies are clever little devils. Our tissues, the very fibers of our being hold on to emotions–good, bad and otherwise. Emotions bubbling up in any type of body work–yoga, massage, acupuncture, etc., are common, healthy and important responses. Left unchecked for too long, buried shit eventually turns into disease and chronic pain.
I really like yoga, but I stopped going because every time we laid down at the end, I started to cry and I was embarrassed, a friend once told me. Oh honey, I replied. Keep going! You are doing such important work.
And sometimes you cry in savasana.
Sometimes we all do.