Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sit Down More! ... Or Not.

Yeah, it’s the end of the year. I’m a teacher, and the end of the semester is a bittersweet time—the students I adore and the students that drive me halfway up the wall are moving on. At the same time, there are so many demands pulling on me. When do I hunker down and indulge in moments to myself? When do I surrender to the demands? What a careful balancing act.

One of the things I love about practicing Bikram yoga is that the dynamics of your daily life play out in the hot room. It’s like the practice serves as this little microcosm for you to test the limits of your mental and spiritual self as well as exercising the body. In my personal life, pop-psych-y phrases like “establishing boundaries,” and “accepting my feelings as valid” have been rattling around in my brain lately. I can’t help seeing yoga as a safe space to test out new ways of being.

After a ten-year hiatus, I’ve been at my current Bikram studio a little over six months. The teachers all know me and my abilities by now, and some of them aren’t hesitant to call me on it when they think I’m slacking. While I love this about them, there are days when I know I need to ignore their personalized instructions: “Come down more, Elisa!” or, better yet, “Zebra-stripe towel girl, why you letting the dog walk you? Don’t be scared; fall down more backwards!”

In an odd way, I think it’s progress to occasionally not heed the teachers if they encourage me to do more if I don’t have it in me that particular day. Yoga isn’t always about achieving the fullest expression of the posture, right?

Still, being in the yoga room feels like a constant negotiation—where’s the line? When do you listen and trust the instructor who says to work harder, and when do you back off? That “listen to your body” stuff? Easier said than done.

I was having a hell of a class last week when this dilemma came into play. Since the winter hit (yes, we get winter even here in San Diego!), the room has been much cooler than usual—100 degrees versus the usual 115 degrees. The class was particularly full that day, and the instructor had me move directly in line with the heater that was spewing hot air across my face. In the mirror, my hair was blowing around like a model in a photo shoot, although with buckets of sweat and a red face, I looked decidedly not like a model. By awkward pose, it became apparent that the day’s class was about just making it through the postures without bolting from the room in a panic.

Then came triangle pose. For whatever reason, even though I’m quite flexible, I have always had a hard time getting my hips down in triangle. My hips look more like I’m gingerly stepping over a puddle than sunk firmly into the beautiful 90 degree angle the instructions mandate.

That day, though, the teacher wasn’t going to let me get away with it. “Sit down more, Elisa,” she instructed. No movement on my part. I was already at my limit just being in the room, I told myself. But the teacher persisted: “Elisa, SIT DOWN MORE. I know you can do better. I saw you in the other postures; I know what you can do.”

Even though it was only a few seconds before I reacted, my mind raced with emotions and questions. What would it mean if I listened? What would it mean if I didn’t listen? Couldn’t she see I was already being unfairly punished by the heater blowing the Saharan desert across my face? What would happen if I grabbed my stuff, ran out of the room, and never came back?

This time, I trusted the teacher, and I’m so glad I did. I listened to her instructions again, got my hips down, and glancing at myself in the mirror, knew that I had never expressed the posture so fully. And you know what? It actually felt better to go into it without fear than it did to hold back the way I had been all these months. I was even able to get the hips in line when I went to class the next time!

I think that sometimes when we negotiate, the answer comes back as “take it easy. Today is just about making it through the class, the hour, the moment.” But sometimes those hips will come down and stay there ;-)

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