don’t be a hero: yoga + ego

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I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it. ― Joan Didion

When you have nothing, when the accumulation of happiness in your life amounts to little more than zero, sometimes the ego has the propensity to save. Cultivating an ego makes you believe that you are greater than the some of your parts. It cradles you when your high school AP biology teacher tells you that you won’t amount to very much. Here is a dunce cap. Sit over there, and wait for all the community college acceptance letters to trickle in. Years later, your ego will make you walk in that building with a diploma in your hand and an offer from one of the most prestigious investment banks in the world because you amounted to much. But that man has grown old and doesn’t really remember you. You stand there in your wool suit, fists clenched, because your ego made you believe in yourself when no one else did, and you stand over this man whose hair has grown white, and something in you pauses. You don’t tell him about dunce caps and community colleges. Instead, something in you seizes, knows this isn’t quite right, and you leave and take off your suit jacket and sit in front of the high school and wonder about the woman you’ve become.

You are 21.

Time passes and you are desperate to lose weight, shade frame. You have recently lost your mother — not lost in the sense of a library book gone missing or a fistful of dirt thrown on top of a grave, this is a deeper loss, a constant hurt, a knowing that there are divisions that are not purely mathematical — and after the relief comes the sadness, like a torrent, and the sadness surprises you. You do the maths and you surmise that you could lose her by degrees, by inches from your legs and your hips. A shrinking of skin as it were. You run 35 miles a week, and suddenly your body catches up to your heart.

You feel old. But you are small, like sonnets, and you believe this to be a good thing. A woman as an integer. Your ego doesn’t clue you into the irony that you are suddenly less than the sum of your parts. But it delivers arrogance when you step into your first yoga class.

Back then, you were kind of an asshole.

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And this asshole couldn’t even do one chaturanga. But the ego made you stick with it because yoga wasn’t a union of body and mind, no, it was something that you sought to conquer. You could see the beginning of things and assumed that there is always an end.

You are twenty-eight when your teacher comes over to you and says very calmly and very quietly, your ego will get you hurt. Six words that were seemingly meaningless, even as you configured myself into a bound triangle, snapped your hamstring — an injury from which it took three years to recover. But you still couldn’t see. It would take you a full decade for your eyes to finally open. For the light to filter in through the cracks. All this time, all this practice, all this ego.

An armor you once wore proudly became a Gogol’s overcoat you wanted to shed. Ego only brings you so far, and the blind pursuit of it, the hunger to sustain it, will only be your undoing. The ego likens our life to a war, a battle that must be overcome and conquered, rather than understanding that this is a life that is meant to be lived. The only true end, the only final defeat is our last breath shuddering out. Having an ego is about being myopic and singular in your vision.

I have an ego, still {ah, that final migration to first person!}, but I check it and often. This week I found myself in a lot of challenging shapes, on and off the mat, and I tried to seek out the humility in the smallest of things. That each time the work gets easier, never easy, just easier. This week I found myself saying, Don’t be a hero, and although that refrain elicited a few laughs, I was actually quite serious. If there is a shape I can’t quite make in yoga, I use blocks to bring the ground up. I use a belt in bound poses. I come down to my knees when I need to rest. I stop when everyone around me is pushing their way through.

I thought about my teacher, Elena Brower, who once told me that my ego will undo me. I wonder if she knows how much of a profound impact she’s had on me. I think about Biggie, who said,

I’m just, tryin to stay above water y’know
Just stay busy, stay workin
Puff told me like, the key to this joint
The key to staying, on top of things
is treat everything like it’s your first project, knahmsayin?
Like it’s your first day like back when you was an intern
Like, that’s how you try to treat things like, just stay hungry

I think about Joan Didion and how she believes that life must be seized, loved, and lived. And ego has the propensity to ruin all of that because it turns on itself, it feeds on itself, until there’s no hunger left. You’re sated by all the wrong things.

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No doubt you realized that I’ve made my health and wellness a big part of my life. And while I’m jetting around the city taking classes, I always come back to yoga. I always return to the very personal relationship between me and the mat, the internal introspection and how that connects with outward movement. Today I took an Intermediate/Advanced class at Yogamaya, and it was finally the class I’ve been waiting to take. Ninety minutes of breath and mindful movement rather than a chaturanga cardio race to savasana. And while I found my initial front desk experience a bit chilly, Deborah Bagg’s very precise alignment instruction coupled with her playful energy and affection for poetry reminded me why I need to have yoga in my life. Yoga humbles me, keeps me hungry, because there is never a final shape of a pose. There is no end, there is only the journey and how we live in and through it.

If you’re taking yoga for the first time, please do all the things I wish I did when I started my practice:

1. Use props. Props are your friend. They allow you to feel an aspect of a pose before your body is truly ready to receive it. I see people resisting props and hurting themselves. Don’t be a hero. Be honest about what your body can do.

2. Talk to your teacher. I’ve been practicing yoga and on off for about a decade, and I always arrive early to class to talk to my teacher. I explain any injuries and impairments. Communicate honestly about what’s going on with your body so the teacher can offer modifications so that your practice makes you stronger rather than exacerbating an injury.

3. Stop looking at everyone else. While it’s natural to stare at the ladies who fly up into handstand after slapping their mat down, or feeling small because the yogi next to you can assume a shape you can’t fathom doing, it’s not healthy. Trust me on this. They could be Gumby, a gymnast, or someone who’s been practicing yoga for twenty years. Yoga is your practice. Look around to get inspired or to see how a shape is being formed, but don’t observe as a means to fuel your ego, as a means to tear down your practice. As my friend Julia says, it’s a yoga practice, not yoga perfect.

4. Don’t jet out right before savasana. Tadasana and savasana are actually the most difficult poses in yoga because they are a standing and supine meditation. Don’t dismiss the benefits of a mindful rest. Allowing yourself to feel the effects of your practice are powerful.

5. Try different studios, styles and teachers. For nearly seven years I was OBSESSED with anusara yoga because the principles took my yoga practice to the next level. However, I was only exposed to one kind of philosophy, a singular perspective. Since anusara has become (and sadly so) a dirty word in the yoga community, not many studios advertise this style of practice, so I’ve had to sample a TON of studios and teachers to find my match, and how varying styles complement one another.

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9 thoughts on “don’t be a hero: yoga + ego

  1. My first yoga class was years ago, but I just started doing it a handful of times a week and am falling in love with it. This post was great. I loved “it’s yoga practice, not yoga perfect.” That’s something I will take with me to every class. Thank you for the fun post!

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    1. Claire – First off, I love your blog! Thank you for coming by + I’m so glad you’ve started a practice. I have to say that although I love all kinds of fitness classes, I always come back to yoga. I feel like a boomerang that way, I guess. Perhaps it’s because it’s the only practice that truly has no end, that the beauty of it lies in the intent.

      Warmly, f.

      Like

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