My friend, the yoga instructor, is fond of saying, “Listen to what your body is saying to you today. Push it. But respect what it needs today.”
I have been “practicing” yoga for a while now, practicing it in much the same way that a doctor “practices” medicine. To improve and achieve better results in an art that has unknown depths and challenges and an infinite number of variables.
I began slowly and awkwardly, comparing myself to others in my class just as I did years before when I took up golf. How could so many older and far less athletic women than I hit the ball so much further? How could women who had never even made it through a Wednesday morning total body fitness class have such taut muscles and limber joints? And how is it they, and not I, could get into that pose?
My friend, the yoga instructor, reminds me and my fellow yoginis that we are not there to compete. We are there to do the best we can do, ourselves alone, on any given day. What works one day may not work the next day. But slowly, surely, usually imperceptibly, forward progress is made. Even with a few steps backward now and then, we get stronger and more flexible and more balanced and we are able to do things we never could before.
To be honest, I was a bit skeptical about yoga when I started. I am more clumsy than not and I typically look for the quick fix and the calorie burn. I’d tried yoga before and given up quickly because I just didn’t seem to get much out of it. I kept waiting for the kind of moment I had back in 9th grade French class somewhere in the spring semester when the struggle suddenly ended and I “got it.” Yoga seemed slow and repetitious but I kept at it. I carried on until my muscles had memory and my mind opened up to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, this was good for me. And one day I realized that my half-moon wasn’t half bad.
There is a woman in my class who I have watched from day one when I admired her side plank, her half-moon and her pigeon poses from my well-hidden post on my mat in the back corner of the room. I decided right away that she was the one I should try to emulate. She is amazingly graceful, strong and flexible. Not only is she the best student of yoga in the class, she exudes kindness and warmth and intelligence and goodness. All demonstrated in the 10 minutes we gather before class and the 5 minutes after we dismiss. We in the class do better when she is among us. We are inspired to stretch a little further, balance a bit longer, smile with our hearts and to forego the daily to do list for being in the moment.
I know now that this woman suffered a horrific tragedy several years back. The kind of tragedy which defines a person, a precise moment in time that changes one’s complete perspective about what life will be from here on out. The exact instant one can pinpoint as changing all of life. She has shared with me her story. She told me that when that moment occurred, she did not think or believe or imagine in the least bit that she would ever recover and be herself again. She will tell you that she is not the person she used to be. She says that trying to recapture the person that existed before the moment that changed everything was pointless.
“I went on like everybody tells you–going through the motions, taking a day at a time, making tiny steps forward and occasional huge steps backward until it finally seemed to add up,” she told me.
And now she is the beautiful woman in yoga class. Not the person she was then. But the strong, flexible, balanced and charming woman who presides in yoga class in the front of the room to the right of the instructor. She does yoga because it nourishes her and it challenges her. She took it up somewhat late in life and it wasn’t easy at first. But it was something she could do for herself, surrounded by people she felt did not judge her or pity her or avoid her or try to placate her either. She could go and do just what she felt she could do that day. She could respect what her body and her mind and her soul had to say on a given day and adjust accordingly.
My friend, the yoga instructor, reminds us at the beginning of each class that we are not there to judge anyone or to compete with anyone. We are each there to do the best that we alone can do on that particular day. If I think of that, I better understand that people react differently when they are affected by a moment after which all perspective changes. They respond as best they can. They do what they can do. They may focus on hardships and heart-aches and disasters and crises for a long while. But if they are able one day to let go of the struggle and carry on the best that they can, the muscles of their soul may remember and their mind may open just wide enough to let in the possibility that there is still goodness. And maybe, just maybe, they can enjoy some of it. They can get stronger and more flexible and more balanced and they will be what they never thought they could be.
Like my friend, the lovely yogini.