One of the things a consistent yoga practice has helped me with is understanding the difference between responding to versus reacting to a struggle, especially on the physical level. How far I’ve come from those first months of yoga, when I’d approach Natarajasana with my brow furrowed, teeth grinding, and muscles tensed. And heaven forbid I fall out of the pose, when I’d curse under my breath, roll my eyes at myself, and immediately jolt right back into the pose without taking a moment to compose myself, regroup, and take a breath.
Balancing poses are no less easier today than they were 8 years ago, but the manner in which I approach them now certainly gives them a sense of effortlessness. I keep my face soft, my eyes focused but not burning an angry hole through the wall in front of me. I am mindful of every movement that goes into getting into the pose, aware of my foot planted into the ground, the leg muscles wrapping around the bone, the breath that carries me from rootedness to flying. I feel my wobbles before I tumble, so when I fall out of the pose, I do it with an air of grace, as though it’s all part of some yoga choreography. There is no cursing, self-berating. I inhale, exhale, and start the pose from the beginning.
This isn’t to say that I’m not struggling or being challenged. Just because I’m not gnashing my teeth doesn’t mean I’m not battling with a physical or mental conflict. I have simply chosen to respond with mindfulness and self-compassion rather than react with groans or frustrated, heavy sighs. (It’s also one of the reasons why Loud Yoga Guy grates my nerves so much.)
However, this response to struggle did not seem to be appreciated during a recent yoga class with a substitute teacher. Thirty minutes into the class, with the studio temperature just decimals away from three digits and several rounds of sweaty sun salutations under our belt, the teacher wondered aloud why the class wasn’t making any noise. “I’m worried—it’s too quiet in here,” she said. “Is the class not challenging enough? Do I have to make it harder?” She gave a snarky grin and made us squat into another Uttkatasana. As a joking kind of response, several people in the class groaned loudly as if to say “We get it! We’re feeling the burn!”
Why does it have to be that way? Why did the teacher need us to cry uncle for her class to feel validated? We were all bending low in our Warriors, keeping our arms tight to our sides during Chaturanga. We weren’t checking ourselves out in the mirror or letting our elbows droop in Warrior II. We were just focused yogis, ujayiing our way through the class…like you’re supposed to (well, except if your name is Loud Yoga Guy).
And believe me, my brain was crying uncle throughout most of the class. She was leading us through a wickedly intense standing series (the following postures were completed all on one leg before repeating the entire combination on the other leg): Warrior II > Reverse Warrior > Extended Side Angle > Triangle > Revolved Triangle > Half Moon > Revolved Half Moon > Standing Head-to-Knee prep > Shiva Twist > Tree > Eagle > Dancer > Warrior III. This is a challenging series for anyone, even without hip issues. I found the combination a bit ridiculous; I mean, by Standing Posture #8 the leg has pretty much gone numb and anything from there on is going to be compromised, lack form, and get plain sloppy.
I had to stop several times and shake out my leg so my hip didn’t lock up, even though the instructor kept reminding us not to drop the lifted leg, and if we had to rest to do so in any form of one-legged pose. Well, I broke the “rules” over and over again and stood in Tadasana to regroup. The Old Me, guilt-ridden about not executing a perfect yoga sequence, would have apologized after class: “Oh, I’m soooo sorry I couldn’t stay standing on one leg for all 13 poses (!!!). I have this hip thing, and I tried, honestly, but I’m just so sorry!”
I didn’t apologize this time, though, not because I was being smug or selfish, but because I had nothing to apologize for. I gave the class my all, breathing through the hard spots, and listening to my body when it was telling me that it needed a little break. I didn’t flippantly cross my arms over my chest and roll my eyes when pose #10 approached; I stood calmly in Tadasana, eyes closed, and re-centered.
I’m not sure if that’s what the teacher wanted; maybe she was hoping for more curses under my breath or a frustrated stomp of the foot on my yoga mat. But in yoga, when the going gets tough, sometimes the best way to move two steps forward is to first take one (mindful) step back.