Last weekend my first yoga teacher got married. While at the wedding I thought about how we met when I started practicing 8 years ago. That reminded me about when I was in yoga teacher training earlier this year. My fellow yoga teacher trainees and I discussed our perceptions of yoga we had as beginning students. As the ceremony started, I thought about the lessons that teacher taught me that helped avoid what they felt.
My first regular yoga classes were at a bike shop. Around 10 guys aged 19 to 30 would meet for a group ride. Our fearless ride leader, a former mountain bike racer and yoga teacher would then lead a sequence afterward. From her we all learned:
You may be hard pressed to find a more competitive bunch than 20 & 30something cyclists. The strongest athlete is able to outlast their competitors. Sensing how strong your fellow riders feel can be an advantage.
Not so on a yoga mat. Maybe you take a quick glance around the room to ensure you’ve followed directions right. Looking to see if one could go deeper into a pose than say Mike resulted in tough love. I don’t know how many times we fell into each other as she lead us thru poses with our eyes closed to get us to focus on ourselves than each other. The lesson was all that mattered was on our own mat. As we each bought our own mat, she started bringing kids stickers. During savasana she'd place a sticker on the corner. There are no trophies in yoga, but sometimes there are stickers.
Many times many of us felt were trying to hang on than emulate a cover of Yoga Journal. While that was the case for me, my fellow trainees mentioned at times trying to look as graceful as the others in their first yoga classes.
When focused only on your mat, the first lesson reinforces this second. My teacher stressed we are each built different. The movements we were learning would expose that. What is easy for one person can be difficult for another.
Butterfly is a sitting pose with palms of the feet together and heels brought toward the pelvis. It opens the hips and stretches the inner thighs. The first time she put us into that pose almost everyone’s knees were high in the air even the teacher. But my knees were on the floor. "GOD DAMN YOU SCOTT, I've been trying to get there for years" she said. I felt proud then but later found that I do not bend forward at the hips at all.
Maybe it’s because cycling has a culture of suffering that as athletes we punish ourselves. This is not to say that any pose in yoga should be painful; it should not be. For example as Americans we feel like we get more value for our time in a class if we work to our max. Thus I’d fall over in poses I was nailing the week or two before.
Nothing was wrong with me as a person, just with that day. When we would struggle in the warm up after attacking each other on the roads, she'd tell us how to adjust the pose or take less bend in the knee. As we learned lesson two, then we came to understand this lesson. At the time I did not know we were learning to connect to ourselves and listen to how much our body could do than what our egos wanted it to do.
Our ego or minds may feel like the drivers of our corporal selves. When we think of mind over body, we're not listening to create the feedback loop of bodies telling our minds what’s possible. So the third idea opened us to this fourth. Often the best part of class was to just do, and stop thinking first. We moved where she asked us to move next.
By doing so I found I could do things I had not imagined. We'd be in downward dog and the teacher would say okay jump to seated. Our heads would pop up with a look of “Huh?”. Then she would show us and cajole us to try. Some would freak out mid-movement, others would got most of it, but we all fell and had a laugh. We would try again next week. Years later at my first primary series ashtanga class it shocked me that I had been doing jump thrus all along at a bike shop.
That last point leads to this one. My first yoga teacher was unconventional. We practiced on concrete floors of a bike shop with an industrial interior design. The music she brought for class was hip hop to Red Hot Chili Peppers. She swore a lot. I mean, A LOT, as she dropped f-bombs it was not at us in anger but for us in our exasperation at doing something new.
Doing so created a relaxed environment where we began to create some space in our bodies, in ourselves and for others. In the end the lesson was life is fun, so stop taking everything, even yoga, so serious.
Yoga can be discombobulating the first few times. It gets easier with practice but your perceptions can be the greatest barrier to having a good experience.