When I first started practicing yoga, I learned something really important. Something that I go back to again and again – and again.
Keep your eyes on your own mat.
When you’re the brand newbie in a yoga class, you are the furthest thing from the graceful expression of physicality that you wish you could be. Everything feels entirely foreign. Like, this abnormally calm, spandex-clad, namaste-muthafugga is asking you to put certain body parts near other body parts – that in no other context of life would ever be near one another. There’s an entirely different language they’re spouting off (that’s about as practical to learn as Latin btw) – and quite honestly, even when they say the names of the poses in English, you’re forced to look around to understand what is being asked of you. It’s not a feat to be faced without some serious cajones.
Why oh why did I keep going back? Two reasons. One, in a short time, I found it was noticeably easier to bend over to put the towel on my head after a shower. And two, I had one amazing instructor, early in my yoga-journey tell me that it wasn’t important how close my fingertips came to my toes – but it was important to notice the tone of my inner-dialogue when I attempted to do so. So I went back. And I attempted to manage the deafening cries of my inner-critic when I twisted myself into unfamiliar shapes.
Life and yoga have had such incredible and relevant parallels for me – it’s what keeps me going back. I go to yoga to have better tools to understand how to manage my life. To be reminded that my eyes don’t belong on someone else’s mat.
I always used to look around in yoga. I watched the beautiful woman beside me gracefully lay her forehead against her shins. I watched as she floated through each pose like she was born to move this way. Her whole body appeared buoyant and moved like a silk sheet on a clothes line. I envied her. I was like a non-metallic version of the tin man – dangling my fingertips hoping to one day reach past my knee caps. I envied her ease; my whole body ached and squealed with every movement. I huffed and sweated. I was clunky. And usually one step behind everyone else. She had it so easy! I could look like her if my body was like that.
I quickly figured out that envying her practice didn’t actually make mine any more enjoyable. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The more I watched her, the more I longed to be her and to have what she had… the more I noticed my inner critic grow louder and more obnoxious. Like it’s livelihood was sustained on getting regular hits from my envy. It made my practice less and less pleasant. And with my ridged, immobile body, it wasn’t the greatest experience to start to begin with.
One day, I stopped watching. I would love to think that I had this enlightened moment and I came to this conclusion on my own; but probably one of my yoga teachers made some insightful comment about putting more focus on our own, individual practice. I’m a keen student, so I listened.
I began to enjoy my practice. The practice itself didn’t become easier, but I took more pleasure in it. I enjoyed challenging myself to create these smoother, fluid movements. I became connected and enveloped in being in relationship with my own physical body. Rhythmically connected to breath, and translating the rhythm into movement… it got to a point that I stopped even noticing that anyone else was in the room.
I started noticing small changes in my body. My hand reaching a new place on the front of my shin. Feeling my spine lengthen. And silly little things like my bum finally touching my feet in Child’s Pose. The changes were so small that no one else would see them, but I celebrated internally. These were milestones for me. Some of them I remember so vividly but were so small I can’t bring myself to describe them here. I’m not sure it makes any sense to anyone else and it will probably (definitely) sound ridiculous.
One day, years later, I walked out of yoga practice and into a conversation between two women. One of them had clearly talked the other into coming, perhaps for her first time.
“That was ridiculous. It was SO HARD. I don’t know if this yoga thing is for me.
“Yoga was made for people like this” She referenced to me. “These beautiful, flexible, graceful women.”
Probably the best thing to do here would’ve been to explain to this woman my humble and cumbersome beginnings… but the whole thing kind of made me feel bashful and uncomfortable so I just sort of grabbed my coat and scuttled off awkwardly.
I probably don’t have to spell it out for you that I, quite ironically, found myself in the new role as ‘the picturesque yoga-woman’. The one I used to watch and envy myself not very long ago. And that’s great, but it wasn’t the highlight of the light bulb moment I got from that encounter.
I became her. I did. I became the beautiful, graceful, yoga-woman. And you would think that I’d be overjoyed – but it didn’t feel like I thought it would. I just felt like myself. Just now my bum touched my feet in Childs Pose, which was cool, but definitely not life changing. Yoga was still challenging for me, it wasn’t easy. I still really struggled in a lot of poses. It still took effort, focus and mindfulness to hold certain (most) postures.
I had this new perspective on the yoga-woman now though. I mean, I thought that she was built for yoga! I thought that she was this amazing, yogic super-human. Strong and flexible. And I also made a naive assumption. An assumption that the way she moved was an indication of how it had always been for her. That her fluid movements meant that the same practice that was so difficult for me, was so easy for her. I made this judgement on seeing her – not being her. I never thought to ask her if she thought it was difficult. I just thought it looked easy for her, so it must be easy for her. I measured her movement and abilities against my own without knowing where she came from or how she got to be where she was. I never asked her about her beginning or her challenges.
How often do we do this in life? Measure our accomplishments, our achievements against someone else’s when we don’t have the full story. We assume all sorts of things about people – that certain things must come naturally or easily. That our journey is more difficult with more obstacles to overcome. That because someone makes something look easy, that it must actually be easy for them.
I think that our buying into this falsehood feeds the part of our mentality that pits us against each other – that leads us to compare and compete – when we could instead reach out to one another for camaraderie, compassion, and guidance.
There is a tremendous amount of isolation and heartache we could save ourselves from experiencing if we were all to remind ourselves and each other that the assumptions we make based on the optics of someone else’s life, body, relationship, backbend, glorious mane of shiny hair… [insert any desirable quality here] are not constructed from a comprehensive story. Even our own lives need some perspective shifts and re-evaluations at times. We insert these unrealistic deadlines on ourselves (or others) – like time is the only factor that should be accounted for when creating our list of goals. When really, we ought to factor in so many other potential variables: effort, dedication, diligence, timing (not to be confused with time), opportunities, choices, obstacles – good grief, even luck!
Yoga has been a reliable medium for me to keep reminding myself to take things day-by-day. That every day is different and there are invisible variables that might need to be adapted to. That by forcing things to occur, I only end up hurting myself. Yoga reminds me to accept the natural rhythms of my body and the challenges that are presented to me. It reminds me that if I show up as a willing and open student, I will always walk away with some new insight. It reiterates that allowing and resting are just as important as creating and striving; and that there is no space for something new without releasing something old.
And for the love of Pete. Keep your eyes on your own damn mat.