A few nights ago, as we sat down to eat, I told W how at times, it is difficult to teach, to inspire others to practice when my own practice feels like it's in the dumps.
What does that look like, he asked, wondering if I was worried that a pose wasn't coming, or that it didn't look good, etc.
I told him that, no, it wasn't the usual trappings of the practice, the grasping tendencies that were getting me down. Instead it was that my body hurt, my postures felt painful and heavy, I felt clumsy. And worse than all of that, my mind got frustrated and wanted to quit at every breath.
Oh, he said.
It's been a rough couple of weeks for me and my practice. Having taken on more classes recently, my body is slowly trying to adjust to the added workload and the early hours of teaching practice. I've had an old injury that has resurfaced, and it's made my own practice excruciatingly painful at times. There is an assumption, or, impression, that our teachers are perfect practitioners who are above feeling like the practice is too hard, or frustrating, or who, on a petulant occasion want to simply quit. And take up...raquetball! jogging! heck, sitting on the couch and watching bad television! Just anything other than this meeting your limitations on the mat on a daily basis, up close and intimate, without the option of avoidance. Anything but this reality.
Yeah. It's been like that. Everyday I came to my mat, and it was hard. From start to finish, my mind wouldn't let go. I did all the things that I would suggest to my students: took a few days off, tried Primary Series, tried sticking with Intermediate, tried going to a flow class, did a totally crazy random sequence of all my favorite poses at home, moved faster, moved at a snail's pace. Nothing shifted neither the pain in the body nor the discomfort in my mind.
Teaching when one is not drinking from the well of their own practice is a bit like feeding others when you are starving.
And then yesterday, I showed up to practice, and I expected another miserable showdown with myself, and, it happened: my body opened, my mind released, and I felt light again.
That feeling buoyed me through the day and to a concert that evening. The artist, Fiona Apple, is someone that I feel strongly about. Her work is deeply intense and honest. She does very little to mask her truth or to paint herself in a better light. Listening to her music is like being inside another person's brain: it's messy, chaotic, and hauntingly beautiful. On stage, she inhabits every single song fully. She is inside the experience all over again, so nothing is forced or 'performed' for the sake of performing. She is fully absorbed.
Watching her, yoga kept coming to mind. Here's a woman who does not match our image of what a yogi looks like: she is dark, intense, and in her own words 'at fight with her brain.' Yet, watching her so absorbed in the process of self-reflection, of self-awareness, though extremely painful and uncomfortable at times, I couldn't help but believe that what she does is also a form of yoga. The honesty in her work is courageous and awe-inspiring. Can this honesty, the chaos of her process be anything but yoga?
This is what our minds do: we think 'this is what an asana looks like' and we force our bodies into the shape and ignore the direct feedback of pain and discomfort, because dammit, it's supposed to be this hard if it's going to fix me! We think 'this is what spirituality looks like' and we wear clothes that don't fit us right, change our names, join groups, pretend, pretend, and wait, but nothing comes, nothing saves us, and so we give up and think that we're not peaceful, spiritual, worthy enough. Or, that the method is faulty. We don't allow for the possibility that whatever is happening inside us is worthy. It is spiritual. It has in its core a profound peace that we may be insensitive to at the moment.
If we hear that it's not the end result but the process that is important, we assume that they don't mean us, they must be talking to someone else, over there.
If we hear 'sthira sukham asanam' we secretly scoff, ignore it, and go back to wrestling with ourselves.
If we hear that 'it's ok to have thoughts during meditation; that the mind loves to wander', we assume that everybody else's thoughts are calm, peaceful, important thoughts, and what is wrong with me for thinking about french fries or how much I hate doing this right now...
We categorize. We label. We box things up. We judge and condemn ourselves and those around us. (Maybe you don't, maybe you only have noble thoughts, but I do.)
So, the practice might look like this: you get on your mat, your body aches; the first forward fold is bad enough to want to make you quit forever. You recognize the thought, yet another breath comes and you continue moving. You pay attention to how your little toes open in upward facing dog. Your brain sends another negative thought. You say hello. And another breath comes, and another, and another.
You do this, until maybe one day, the pain is a little less loud. The thoughts a little less sticky. You do this, and maybe you even start feeling good again, before, during, after. Maybe you start craving it again instead of the aversion you had developed a few weeks back to the very word practice. Another breath comes and another and another.
The process is messy. The unraveling by definition, hurts. It's a destruction of sorts. Unraveling old injuries, habits, heart breaks, disappointments, future ones also. It is brave work. It's work that tests our faith.
The couch seems like a much better option at times, but that is just avoidance, and the practice, if given enough time, will teach you that what you avoid now will surely come back and bite you in the ...asana?
I told my class tonight, quite spontaneously, that I had developed a strong faith in this practice. Not a blind faith that was based on what others had told me was possible, but an earned, experienced faith that has come through injury, through difficult patches, through practice. This faith is what makes teaching possible even when my own practice is not going well. And it's a damn good thing, since I am only getting older, have a body, and will, with time, experience many such occasions to test and strengthen my faith in the process of yoga.