I write this with the hope that students and teachers won’t think I am encouraging them to be overzealous; rather, my hope is to share what I’ve learned from an ego-driven asana practice, and secondly, thanks to a great teacher, what I’ve learned by paying attention.
The way I teach and practice has changed dramatically from where this story starts. It took me a while to write this because at 30 years old with only three years teaching experience, I am still a new teacher. I wondered at first if this was just my ego talking again. There are have been many, many thoughtful responses to the NYTimes piece, and I wondered if throwing in my two ‘young’ cents was worth it.
I truly believe the yoga practice can be an avenue where students and teachers choose to question their egos. It can be an incredible place to change the patterns in your life. This is a choice though; as yoga has become a huge industry in the United States, not everyone makes this choice.
So here goes my story:
I have a history of being overzealous; it runs in the genes. I’ve carried very heavy boxes up ten flights of stairs just because the line for the elevator was too long. After reading Born to Run, I decided to go trail running barefoot, and after cutting up my foot, I chose to do another two mile loop barefoot.
Flashback to me at 27. I had been teaching for less than a year. My favorite poses were hanumanasana and kurmasana. (Just the fact that I had a check-off list of favorite poses should tell you something about my narrow, ego-driven approach.) I was practicing hanumanasana about three times a week with the same teacher. My practice was overzealous and unfocused (a dangerous combination), and my drishti was all over the place. I’d developed new, unfamiliar flexibility; and the way some students felt about crow was the way I felt about hanumanasana. (Today, it seems pretty obvious what was happening. I was so goal-oriented that I wasn’t paying attention to my breath, and I was so used to the hyperlordotic curve in my lumbar spine that I didn’t have the awareness to feel the compression in my lower back.)
I would slide into the pose over and over; some nights, I went home and would add hanumanasana to the classic Surya Namaskar A over and over. (A clear point; if you do anything over and over again without proper attention to alignment, you will probably end up with a serious injury.) The way I was going I was on the verge of a herniated disc in the low back, s.i. pain, and possibly a knee injury. And yet, it felt so good to get my pelvis to the ground because as I made it to the ground, I could finally focus my drishti, and begin to pay attention. (So I’ll admit I was only paying attention after I lowered my pelvis to the floor, but I didn’t know better. My knowledge of alignment was limited; I had little idea what I was doing to my s.i., to my lumbar spine, and possibly my knees.) I was young in age and in practice. I loved yoga the way Anthony Bourdain loves food.
Flash forward another year or two, I’m in the middle of an advanced Smart Flow teacher training with Annie Carpenter at Exhale in Venice, California. I’m finally learning alignment, and starting to get it. And the best part is…it’s really, really interesting to me; rather than being this tool that forces me to back off (which it also did), it is forcing me to pay attention. We slide into hanumanasana using the wall behind us to press into the back heel while simultaneously lifting both frontal hip bones up towards the ceiling; we’ve been preparing for this pose for over two hours too so we’re warm. As far as my eyes can see, everyone in the room has their front thigh lifted on a block. No one has slid all the way to the floor because, as Annie says, yoga is the practice of paying attention. I’m sweating. My lower back feels long, and this is the best experience I’ve ever had in hanumanasana…
Part of the reason that experience was so amazing is because I knew the alternative. There were at least twenty people in the room (myself included) that could have lowered their pelvii to the floor with bad alignment. And no one made that decision.
If you are going to cave in to peer pressure, it might as well be the good kind.
I believe a good teacher asks us to question our egos and asks us to pay attention.
There have been so many amazing responses to “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” Of course it can. Typing too long on a computer can also wreck your body. Loving someone who treats you cruelly can wreck your body. Drinking too much water can wreck your body.
But curiosity is a great mistress. And curiosity founded on alignment is like a Neruda love poem, a Bjork song, a book by Arundathi Roy….curiosity and alignment together are great gifts from Kali.
So what I ask myself, my readers and my students is that we pay attention. We must pay attention to alignment, to the breath, and to where our imbalances are. Not only do I think this makes for a more graceful, lasting yoga practice, but a more interesting life.
And I thank Annie Carpenter for teaching me this.