A decade ago, I walked into a West Palm Beach studio and began my career as the world’s least flexible and uncoordinated yoga student. Whenever I stressed about how I couldn’t do what the other more graceful and bendy students could, my teacher, Ruthie, simply advised me to “work your own practice.”
Generally, this seems good advice for enthusiasts of a practice that dates back to the third century B.C., which encompasses the spiritual, mental and physical and requires constant mindful attention to your breath and posture. But when Ruthie said that to awkward, thighs-like-a-block-of-wood me, she was specifically telling me to keep my eyes — and my head — on my own mat. It’s hard to focus on your center and find peace when you won’t get out of your own way.
I may not be really good at yoga. But fruitless competition and self-sabotage? I’m the queen of that!
And after years of stops and starts in my yoga practice, I find myself older and even less flexible than I was, but finally wise enough to stop caring if I’m less graceful yogi and more Yogi Bear.
The other day I found myself in the back of a beautiful, serene studio filled with more experienced students in their pretty Lululemon yoga wear and water bottles. And there I was very happily among them, drinking coffee out of a Thomas The Tank Engine sippy cup I borrowed from my kid, in $19.99 outlet store yoga pants and a Jack Daniel’s T-shirt I wore not to be edgy, but because it was the first clean shirt I found on the way out the door.
And I could not have felt more at home. It doesn’t matter if I’m the blockiest, flabbiest, least sexy person in the room. The only thing I have to conquer are my own thoughts.
It’s ironic to be talking about mentally competing with the younger, thinner and more supple occupants of neighboring yoga mats, because yoga is not supposed to be a competition. It’s about a greater connection with oneself and the universe, the centering of your being to the very core of your breath. But leave it to Western culture — and we Americans are particularly guilty of this — of turning something so personal into a contest, or, in some cases, a disco.
It became that, for a while, to me. I am not what I’d call athletic, but after years of promising that I would only ever run if villagers were chasing me with pitchforks, I became a very serious runner. Even at my fastest, I was a front of the middle of the pack runner, at least good enough that if there were actual torch-bearing villagers or polar bears chasing us, they’d get somebody slower first.
But even if you’re slow, running is a particularly punishing sport, requiring you to pound several times your body weight into your knees and joints, and then into the pavement. So obsessed was I with my mileage, with my PR (personal record), and the crazy calories I was burning, that I hated taking time to even stretch. Bob Anderson, my marathon coach, insisted that I start a stretching routine, which is what brought me to the quiet studio where Ruthie taught Pilates and yoga.
I remember walking in and seeing so many Zen-looking, jelly-limbed fellow students, who could bend their legs so far over their heads that they could reach up and do their own pedicures. And that almost sent me running back to the solitude of my living room where I could do my yoga DVD by myself and be automatically the hottest student in the room. I felt like I was subjecting myself to being the fat, dorky kid in gym class again. Namaste? More like I won’t stay.
But somehow I did stay — at the back of the room, of course — where I discovered two important things. One, being in a class with people who actually know what they’re doing is instructive, because the teacher on the TV can’t come and give you gentle adjustments that help your posture. Two — and this is most important — ain’t nobody worried about you. For real.
I was so stressed that I was being judged for my blockiness that I forgot that if the other students were there for the right reasons, they weren’t even paying attention. There’s a hilariously awful essay on XOJane from a few years back about how focusing on other yoga students and what you imagine they’re thinking of you can completely derail your own practice.
Why give your mindfulness to someone else? It wasn’t until I shut up my insecurity and focused on my own breath, my own healing, that I really came to love it.
Yoga is a quiet place when I make myself shut up enough to let it be.
And now, after years of punishing my poor body through all that running and the CrossFit and all the pounding, I have returned to that mat, happier because I’ve accepted that I will never be the Queen of Yoga.
I might have to follow the easier variations. My feet may never get anywhere close to over my head. And that’s OK. I am working my own practice. It’s a slow, inelegant practice, but it’s mine.