About 6 years ago, my sister—in her passive aggressive, nit-picky manner—criticized me for talking differently while teaching yoga. Instead of questioning the end-game of her insinuation or taking her snarky commentary as feedback, I became defensive. I retaliated by reminding her of her own irritating flaws. Her observation was never wrong nor was it new information to me. I was aware of my “weird yoga” affectations but had neither the tools to fix it nor the confidence to dig into the discomfort she elicited.
Her remark settled into the unsorted files of my brain. It would resurface from time to time only to re-land back with the other unfinished business (and irritating things my sister has said to me). I was not harboring or holding a grudge, rather I knew it would someday help me on my path. You see, I DO listen to my sister eventually; on my own time and in my own way.
Last week I asked my students to lay on their backs as the opening position for class. In one my usual off-the-cuff utterances, I said “Don’t assume your yogic persona here. Just focus on your breath. Land in your body. Let the body respond.” Spontaneously—in true harmony with epiphanies—my “aha” moment came to fruition.
We often respond to the icky-ness of the inconvenient and not-so-pretty truth through self-defense. It’s not easy to react to the perceived offender with open ears, mind and heart. I’d like to guess it’s a natural reaction to protect our identities, especially the ones replete with vulnerability. Our gut responses can have costly ramifications. Seriously.costly.ramifications. (Ahem, look at history or at current events.) In this case, though, not much else happened besides my sister and I merely brushing our shoulders off and carrying on in our combative-one-second-lovey-the-next sisterly way.
As yogis, when we unroll our mats we instantly become our alter-ego yogic selves. Our alignment, breath, perception, views towards others, sense of spirituality, sense of self—to name a few—become instantly yogic. We leave our messiness at the door in exchange for this corrected version of ourselves.
Does this happen to you?
It’s like we habitually personify our stereotypical notion of “yogic” when we step onto our mats. Post-savasana, we roll up that identity neatly and tidily and throw it into the backseat of our cars until next the next time. Since I’m a muscles and bones girl anatomical analogy makes the most sense to me. So, I’ll talk a little about physical alignment:
For most of my day my feet turn out, my knees hyperextend, my tailbone tucks, my thoracic spine extends and my head presents slightly forward. I’d love to think I am fixing my alignment throughout my daily activities, but I know I am not. Yet, once on my mat—alas, go-go gadget yoga alignment—I quickly assume an alignment unlike my own. My knees don’t lock, my feet don’t turn out, etc., etc. I imitate a perfect alignment on paper; an alignment that lacks carryover into function.
When taking on a new persona - be that teacher, employee, wife, yogi - we experience the pressure of the shoulds. It makes more sense in our brains to put all the attributes of the person into a neat box and employ them when needed. Yogi, for example, comes with a few stereotypical adjectives: flexible, calm, centered, vegetarian, sinewy, zen. Folks who choose to avoid yoga might do so because of the aforementioned stereotypes and feeling like they don’t exactly fit the bill.
Moreover, once we actually assume the role—especially when there are numerous “shoulds” that come with said territory—we find that the imitation of others is the safest option. We might imitate a teacher, other students, a video or anyone else who we perceive as having an easier time than ourselves (eg. my fake yoga voice). We might get really good at that imitation. We might start to confuse our talents with our work; we might get so good at pretending we forget we’re even pretending. If called out on our pretending, we might get super defensive. Our pretending becomes easier than leaning in, dusting off the rubble and getting better acquainted with ourselves.
Our practice is a delicate, vulnerable and quite possibly feisty lil’ creature that we want to nurture. Practicing yoga does not guarantee much, but the one thing it does guarantee to the dedicated student is change. And although we hope that change is for the better, that is not always the case. We might love how we feel while we’re on our mats, yet struggle to reconcile the fruits of our practice—kindness, compassion, patience, love, authenticity—with the great world beyond the mat. We become afraid of what lurks behind the imitation, the better alignment or the yogic sounding voice.
The practice of yoga is BIG; it’s really powerful, mountain-moving, magical kind of stuff. Paradoxically, when we focus too much on doing the yoga asana, the practice shrivels into something small, something contained within the mere physical body. The caveat to merely assuming the yogic role while on our yoga mat is that at best, we can master a few physical shapes. Cool. But we risk being so consumed by our habits of imitating and pretending that we lose sight of our own paths. Our perception itself shrinks and we risk becoming increasingly uncomfortable being our own, inimitable, one-of-a-kind selves.
This yoga stuff starts with deepening our internal attention to the breath. Then the practice deepens our connection to a much bigger, more unified and loving version of ourselves. On its best days, through our practice, we find ourselves face to face with the uncomfortable reality that we’ve got a whole heck of a lot of work to do in this life—wearing clothes other than yoga pants and possibly with shoes on and in less charming environments—and our mat is there to support our life’s work. Let your practice be the space where you dabble in being yourself, unapologetically.
I invite you to step onto your mat in all of your messiness. Let your body be as it is—unfixed, uncorrected. Feel the feels associated with living inside of your skin. Then allow the awareness to shift to the breath. Feel the way the body responds; it might rise, it might soften depending on its needs. Trust the intuition of the experience. Sometimes you’ll work more, sometimes less. Your mat is a 2-dimensional, static object. You are not.