This morning started like many other Monday mornings—grudgingly dragging my feet from the bedroom to the bathroom. Stepping over the cat that is always in my way, grabbing my gym bag, but not my coat, and heading out into the barely-started day. My body operates as a programmed transport for my brain as I park my car, walk down the street, and into the yoga room. Then, as the students begin to arrive I finally start to feel awake.
While the class kicks off a bit stiff and disjointed, before long the class has transformed into a body of completely focused energy. I can see my students eyes fixated on the mirror, checking their alignment and struggling to hold on just a moment longer while balancing. This morning it occurred to me—in a big and bright way, not unlike times before—that yoga is anything but an escape. It is, if nothing else, an experience of your life, challenged, slowed down and in high definition. It’s intense.
I've had people approach me to say to me that they want to begin a yoga practice because they want “an escape.” I’m super stressed and I just need to not think and just relax. They may come into a class with this image of trance-like music, a beautiful teacher with airy words and a soft touch, and students moving effortlessly into spectacular poses. Welp, sweetheart, that sounds wonderful but that ain’t how it’s going to go. There will be a lot going on that you may not expect, so you better hang on for the ride.
The truth is, for most people beginning a yoga practice is a large undertaking. First step is always stepping through the door. Then once you’re in the room, chaos happens. You’re looking into the mirror not just at yourself, but at yourself amid a sea of others. Combine your already stressed state, with not knowing what the teacher will say, what to do with your hands, and wondering why the heck you’re so sweaty already and you have a jumbo-size mental mess. Of course there will be moments when you must come to terms with all the physical postures you may not be able to do. There will be moments of ego, where you must wrestle with your urge to critique and judge your physical abilities. What?! I can’t balance on one foot? This is bullshit! It’s not simply a physical practice, but a mind and body experience that will challenge all parts of you, even to points of discomfort.
You will face moments that have pushed many to quit in the past, because they wanted something easy and dammit it’s not. Because yoga is not a single experience, a serene and isolated beach that will remain the same each time you come to it. No, each time you step on your mat it’s a whole different ballgame. From the moment you left your mat to the moment you’ve come back, you’re carrying new baggage, new experiences, everything that you put into your body since then. And if you’re not paying attention you may end up on your ass—literally and figuratively.
So why does this image of peaceful and stress-free yoga sessions keep taunting all the brand new beginners, as if the jokes on them? Does it ever become easy? Last week I had a student tell me, “Wow, you’re a slave driver—I like it. You’ll see me next week.” What?! That doesn't sound like a yoga teacher I want to go to! You should know, yoga was not by any means easy for this man. He is well past his 50s, had to use the wall for balance, took modifications of most poses, and sweats enough to create his own, private pool. But he had over an hour to wrestle his demons head on and he came out alive--smiling even. Really, I just helped guide him from one point to the other, with gentle reminders in between. You are challenged to meet yourself exactly where you are, both mentally and physically, and then willingly let go of disillusion. Following every sweaty torture of holding dreaded eagle pose, is the opportunity to release. So no, I’m not the slave driver, you are—but you’re welcome anyway.
The calm, tranquil, serene beach of paradise can be found in yoga or any other activity you find to be challenging because it forces us to let go of the false image of ourselves. We must rise to the occasion to get through what we are doing. We must be better than we think we are. And that is a wonderful feeling. That is the moment of Ahhh. That is why my students get up every morning and get on their mats--to face themselves in the mirror and come out victorious.