A few weeks ago, I took a yoga class at a new studio, and ran into a work colleague. We talked a bit before class, and I ended up on the mat across from her in a room set up “battle style” – with all mats facing toward the center of the room. I don’t remember much about the class other than that I felt great at the end, thanked the teacher, and headed toward the sinks to get some water. My work colleague approached me and said, “You’re really great at yoga! I was watching you the entire time!”
I was stunned, but I took a beat, thanked her, and let her know I had just finished my training to be certified as a teacher, so I hoped I had set a good example. I left feeling surprised and confused. How could anyone practice while watching someone else the whole time? My confusion soon turned to recognition – I had been there once.
I was reminded of this feeling when one of my sisters – I have four – mention that she’d like to take a “level 2” class, but she didn’t feel ready. She worried that the other students would look at her funny. My response was, “When you stop looking around the room, you’ll stop believing other people are looking around the room.” Just like I was convinced no one would ever watch me practice, she was convinced everyone did.
When you’re new to yoga, you can’t help but look around the room. You don’t know the names of the poses, you didn’t quite catch whether we’re on the left side or the right side, and you want to see if your alignment is alright – you check the mirror, you check out the other students.
Eventually, you get the basic poses, but you still want to look around the room. The mirror is almost always there, beckoning you to look – the more you try to avoid it, the more you catch yourself checking yourself out, sneaking a peek at someone else. Maybe they are struggling. Maybe they are leveling up or making something you find challenging look easy and graceful. You can’t seem to help but to compare your practice to their practice. And you tell yourself a little story about it, like how you have a job and can’t afford to practice seven days a week, or that she must a gymnast to be able to do that.
We use judgment to avoid the feeling of our own inadequacy, insecurities, and lack of self-worth. Instead of addressing those feelings, we look at the perceived shortcomings of others so we don’t have to face our own pain. … Judgment can be sneaky, presenting itself as justification for condemning someone who has wronged you. However, this judgment is what keeps us in the illusion that we are separate from one another.
– Gabrielle Bernstein, The Universe Has Your Back
Insisting on separateness brings us further and further away from our yoga practice. The word yoga means to yoke, to unify, and in an asana class, that usually translates to inhaling in extensions or backbends and exhaling in flexions or folds. We unify breath and movement. In a class setting, we also synchronize our breath with the other yogis in the room – sometimes we even feel the collective energy in the room. In a spiritual meditation practice, it means a connection with God, with the supreme Oneness, with the Universe. Off the mat, we can also unify. We can drop the ego. The ego is always trying to justify our uniqueness, our separateness. The recognition of myself in the Other dissolves that margin. Think about that the next time your yoga teacher tells you to let go of the ego. Who cares whether you nailed the “peak pose” or the arm balance or the inversion? Successes and failures are for the unenlightened.
Choosing to live higher - a personal mantra and the original name of this blog - means a lot of things to me. It means doing a triage of my waste (repurpose/recycle/compost/garbage), reading the news, voting with my dollar, and practicing compassion with myself and others. But it also means being aware that I can always do better. Sure, I read yoga books and write about yoga and meditate and I still find myself cutting my eyes at a cyclist who cuts me off. We may not ever squash the darkest parts of ourselves. Even the Dalai Lama admits that he is doing the best he can, without ever being really convinced that he’s done the best he could. If we become convinced that we’ve done our very best, we risk arrogance and complacency. So live higher; I’m always looking for someone to look up to.