Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Strike a pose

"It seems that it is a common experience to take extreme views; we don't usually find the middle view. For example, we come to a dathun and we're all just starting to practice. The first couple of days we think, "I am going to do this perfectly," and we practice with intense effort to sit right, walk right, breathe right, keep the silence, do everything. We really push, we really have a project. Then, at a certain point, we say, "Oh for goodness' sake! What in the world am I doing?" We may just drop the whole thing and go to the other extreme--"I couldn't care less." The humor and the beauty of practice is that going from one extreme to the other is not considered to be an obstacle; sometimes we're a drill sergeant, sometimes we're like mashed potatoes. Basically, once we have some sort of joyful curiosity about the whole thing, it's simply all information, gathering the information we need to find our own balance."--Pema Chodron, from The Wisdom of No Escape

Since writing about my first attempts at practicing yoga I've started taking a beginner yoga class once a week called "Yoga FUNdamentals." I go with Chloe, a friend of mine from work. It's a mad dash to the studio to get there, changed, and with my yoga mat out before the class starts at 5:30. Like the mediocre student who doesn't want to be called on for an answer, I always place my mat at the back of the room. That way I can watch the other, more coordinated students and make sure I'm not on the wrong foot or standing when I should be lying down with my hips aloft.

The first time I went to the class I had no idea what to expect. I hadn't taken an exercise class since that one failed attempt at bellydancing back in 2002. I've belonged to gyms before, but I always stuck to working out on my own. I would push myself, sure--but not too hard. It's like a colleague of mine said yesterday about taking a spin class, "I would never work as hard on my own as the class makes me work." I also have the annoying habit of "upward comparing." I find the best student in the class and watch her. Suddenly I'm stumbling more, or I notice my form is poor, or I stand on the wrong foot. I feel much less satisfaction with myself, even if when I started the class I thought, "This is good, I'm proud of myself for showing up."

Better to downward compare, to take a glance at the student who is struggling to keep up, who needs the teacher to come and readjust her position several times during the session. Unfortunately, that person is usually me.

So when I took my first yoga class, I worked hard (which for me is not giving up after twenty minutes to lounge around and eat chocolate cake. Hey, I exercised, I can eat sweets now!) I worked so hard that sweat dripped off my forehead and splashed on my mat. I realized how many muscles I hadn't worked in months, and that I had trouble bending over to touch the floor so I could only hang there, like a rag doll missing some stuffing. Early on the instructor showed us the Child pose, to be used whenever we got tired and needed to take a break. Of course I read this as only the lightweights go into child pose. I'm going to work through the pain.

When class was over, instead of letting myself feel good about doing it, or noticing those wonderful endorphins coursing through my body, I looked in the mirror in the changing room and was horrified by my red face and sweat-slicked hair that stuck to my forehead and cheeks. My friend Chloe, who is petite, nimble, and younger, and who seems to lack the self-consciousness gene (I always find myself befriending people like this, perhaps because I want to learn their secret or catch whatever positive vibe they have) took just a few minutes to gather herself and her belongings together before she was ready to go. Meanwhile, I flung powder on my shiny face and frantically tried to puff out my flat hair. We were going out in public, I was taking the "T" home, and I looked like a crazy lady. This was not what I took a yoga class for!

I ended up feeling so out-of-sorts that as soon as we stepped onto Boylston Street I hailed a cab. Actually, that's not all that uncommon for me, taking cabs. I consider cabs to be one of the treats afforded to middle class people like me. My husband, of course, would disagree, saying that I don't have the money to waste on cabs when I have a perfectly efficient subway system and a monthly fare card. But I love sitting in the back of a cab, being whisked away to my destination. I like having the whole backseat to myself and not having to be squeezed in the tube of a subway car, standing hip to hip with strangers and trying to balance myself and not fall on anyone as the train lurches and jerks.

When I got home, I was feeling down. Mike asked me how class went and I told him how hard it was and how much I was sweating and how disheveled I looked afterward. He smiled and said, "That's how you know you got a good workout." The following week, when I mentioned the same thing to Chloe, she said, "I thought you had a healthy glow." Hmmm...negative spin on yoga class--too hard, hate getting sweaty--meant that I would be restricted to Gaiam videos for the rest of my life. Positive spin--good workout, healthy glow--meant I could keep taking the class and who cared what I looked like, in class or after? I chose to be positive.

Happily the next class I knew what to expect and followed at my own pace. After all, with yoga you only go as far as you can. It's not a competitive sport. If someone can do the downward facing dog better than you can, they don't win a free yoga block. In fact, if you're really living in the moment you're not paying attention to other people at all. You're just following your own breath, your own ability, your own path.

I left that class just as red and sweaty as the previous week, but instead of looking at myself as a mess, I saw the promise of regular exercise. This time I felt the endorphins in spades. And I didn't hesitate to take the subway, facing the harsh light and what I perceived as the harsh judgment of others. It all felt good and promising.

Of course, not every class is like that. This past week I came in late as usual and tried to take my place in the back, but the very friendly, soft-spoken instructor invited me to come up front. I dragged my mat forward, dreading my new position. Put me in the front row of an English literature class, no problem. Put me in the front row for any kind of physical fitness and I start looking for the exit.

I made my share of mistakes, and noticed that yet again I was one of the few people the instructor had to adjust. At one point when she said I had to push down from my hips and then my stomach, I just fell flat. Was she kidding? I actually laughed at her, and she said, "Good, giggling is important."

When she didn't stop to correct my form or when she said "good job people" and didn't say except for Jennifer--I felt capable, basking in the praise. There was nothing I could do about other people and whether or not they were thinking "wow, that woman is a spaz." I also couldn't completely control my own mood at being asked to balance myself like a stork for five minutes (when is this class over?) And when my breath was getting particularly shallow, I allowed myself to retreat to child pose. That one is definitely my favorite.


NatureGirl said...

My favorite post so far! Amazing insight...thank you for sharing!!!

Nathan said...

I've been doing yoga for a good decade now - and very regularly the past three years. Even I get adjustments from the teacher sometimes, and notice my mind watching for it other times (and no adjustment is made).

Jomon said...

I am right there in the back of the class with you. What a great post!

MJ in MA said...

I love this post! I have experienced almost every feeling you describe at one time or another during yoga class. Particularly "wow, that woman is a spaz"... I wasn't built to stand on one foot for more than the time it takes to put one foot in front of the other.