Recently, I’ve returned to yoga, taking a few classes at two local studios after a hiatus of more than two years. I am definitely what you’d call a beginner yogi: I’m familiar with most of the basic poses, but in every class I encounter new terms, new twists (literal and figurative), and new ways of putting the poses together. My body is not naturally particularly flexible, and I am out of practice, so I have to be patient with myself. More specifically, I have to overcome the twin obsessions of what Natalie Goldberg calls my “monkey mind”: perfectionism and the need for validation.
My first yoga teacher, McKay, used to tell us, “There is no judgment or competition in yoga.” That statement always felt like an exhale to me, a huge relief. I repeat it to myself every time I’m on the yoga mat. The lack of competition is one of my favorite things about yoga, one of the reasons I look forward to yoga classes, rather than dreading them the way I used to dread those physical fitness tests in elementary school.
Even with McKay’s words in my head, I still find myself glancing around at the other students, or at the teacher. I’m not judging their practice, usually; I’m judging my own. Are my toes pointed in the right direction? Are my legs up high enough? Do I look stupid with my hair falling down around my face? Am I sweating more than anyone else? (The answer is usually yes.) And the question underneath all those: Am I doing it right?
Because I’m relatively new to yoga, I am only really confident of a few poses: plank, cat/cow, downward facing dog. When I twist myself into triangle or pigeon or some other more intense pose, I always automatically wonder: is this right? Sometimes the wondering continues: should I bend this way, stretch that way, lean forward or back, breathe in or out? Sometimes I’m able to quiet the inner chatter and hold the pose, simply be there, breathe through the discomfort. At other times, I glance toward the front of the room, wanting the instructor to give me a gold star, to say, Yes. You’re doing it right.
As you know if you have practiced yoga, being right isn’t the point. The practice, the very act of showing up and doing the poses, is the point. Aiming for the right form is good, of course; it stretches the muscles properly and helps prevent injury. But perfection is not the goal. The goal is to be present, to exercise your body, to calm your spirit. The goal is to do, and to be.
I run into these twin obsessions at other places in my life, most particularly in my writing. I have always been good at fulfilling assignments, and I’ve earned plenty of gold stars for doing so over the years. But now that I’m not in school anymore, now that I write mostly for myself, I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder to tell me if I’m doing it right. I can make massive mistakes, spend hours working on sentences I’ll eventually throw away. Without a built-in system for validation, the possibilities are sometimes frighteningly endless.
But in yoga, as in writing, that lack of judgment, competition and validation provides a quiet freedom, the chance to experiment and find out how a pose or a technique works for me. There is a place in both arenas for honing and refining my craft. But for now, what I need is to turn off the judgmental voice in my head, lean into the yoga pose (or into the blank page), and practice. I need to show up, so I can do, and be – without relying on anyone else to tell me I’m doing it right (or wrong).
Read Full Post »