I used to be a yoga person. I’d go to several classes a week, generally whatever fit in best to my schedule. There was the severe Ashtanga class in the old Hearst Gym, taught by a gentle, reserved elderly man named Carl. There were the incredibly nurturing classes down at the studio in Emeryville, the kind of class that ends with the teacher pressing lavender oil into your neck. (Is there a better feeling in the world? There is not.) There were various studios in various other cities: some hot and crowded, some awkward, some emotional and some intimidating.
There were hard lessons about migraine triggers. (Hot yoga: not even once.)
For the last few years, I haven’t done much yoga, mainly because it seems literally impossible these days to actually make the effort to go to a class before, during, or after work. But at some point during my adventure with pneumonia, I decided to start doing some classes online. And then, like seemingly every person in the world, I became a big fan of Yoga with Adriene, who has taught me to forget everything I knew about asanas.
Here’s the thing: I’m not exactly a high-energy person. I can barely stay upright in a chair for more than ten minutes before I begin the slow slide down into some kind of quasi-horizontal position. I’ve often found that I need to lie down upon reentering the house after any kind of errand, as though I have a case of the vapors.
And yet, to my chagrin, I live in a culture that prizes macho energy: we give big props to people who don’t take their leave from work, and we applaud those who get up at the crack of dawn after a partial night of sleep to go “no pain, no gain” it out in the gym. We robotically chase productivity without being certain what we’re producing or why.
(I wonder: is producing the masculine cousin of creating?)
For me, both personally and politically, this kind of macho go-get-’em-tiger thing does not spark joy.
The point is, I’ve always had issues with yoga classes that feel all about power, pushing, sweating, pumping, working. I mean, we have every kind of exercise class under the sun. If I wanted to do those, I’d do those! There is something that seems devious about turning yoga into calisthenics.
(For the record: what I am referring to as “yoga” did, indeed, start as calisthenics in the early 20th century. But that doesn’t mean I have to want to do it that way. I want bolsters and I do not want to sweat, dammit).
But the other sort of yoga, which isn’t a macho workout, is a great alternative. I love yoga classes that are gentle and creative—that surprise me, that put asanas in different orders and show me different ways of feeling them, like a kaleidoscope for the body.
So every day I get on the carpet for a session or two with Adriene, who is so creative. I say a session “or two” because, in my own pushy macho way, I was (until today) chasing a goal of catching up to her calendar: there is a video on her channel every day of the year, mostly old videos that she has organized into monthly themes. I didn’t start doing a daily practice until sometime in February, and then by that point I felt like I absolutely had to go through the entire calendar, which meant doing two videos a day until I finally caught up, which occurred about two hours ago.
Yay productivity! Hoo-rah! High-five me, bros!
Something I’ve noticed: every time I start, I’m hoping this day’s video will be a gentle, stretchy, slow practice. If it turns out we start flat on our backs, I’m golden. If there’s a blanket and/or a pillow out, I feel a thrill.
Yet, some days when she’s inviting us to go slow, I find that I’ve got all the energy and heat in the world.
On the other hand, when she says it’s a “warming,” “swift” practice, I get a little trepidatious. A little grumpy. I am reminded of all the hours I’ve spent forcing myself through dozens of sun salutations (which, folks, I’m sorry, but I simply do not enjoy! And it turns out they are not mandatory! Yoga God did not demand sun salutations to forestall years of famine!) When she says it’s time for chair pose, sometimes I curse at her aloud. (I don’t often enjoy chair pose. It is very much unlike being horizontal.) How dare you ask me to utkatasana right now. Bitch, all I want to do is literally lay down and cry.
But to my shame, most of the time I end up really benefiting from, even enjoying, the practice, even if it’s hot and sweaty and involves sun salutations.
Discovering this fact—that I sometimes enjoy things I do not expect to enjoy—does not inspire self-trust. I basically always feel like lying down and watching movies until I turn into hot human compost, but it turns out that I actually enjoy living somewhat differently than that. How can I then do what I want?
Luckily, Adriene has a solution for that. She is always saying “find what feels good,” constantly reminding us that we shouldn’t crank ourselves into a yoga-looking posture at the expense of feeling good. This both heals my relationship to individual asanas I don’t like (because sometimes I can do chair pose if I feel like it, and sometimes I can just not! Which is fine!), and helps remind me every day to chase what actually feels good to me, rather than what I expect I should want, or what I assume others might want me to do, and other boring stuff like that.
It’s terribly appropriate for yoga, I think, to be about finding what feels good. There is a lot of baggage, a lot of ink spilled, about the long, deep, sacred history of yoga, and what about it is right and wrong, but it turns out that what we Westerners do when we do yoga has basically nothing to do with that ancient stuff. At all. We’re all just making shit up as we go, it turns out, finding what feels good, and what works. As long as we welcome that truth, we’re fine.
Here’s the ultimate problem I have with yoga, that I think yoga is finally helping me get out of: I ask myself to stick to a routine, to be productive between 8:30 and 8 or whatever on Monday through Friday, and to be sociable in the evenings and weekends, and maybe pursue my hobbies at certain times.
But what if my body doesn’t behave? What if I have to acknowledge that I will get a migraine every single time I try to run when there are more than 70 degrees happening? What if I have to acknowledge that I get very sleepy at 10pm and any attempt to use my brain for anything but tooth-brushing and reading after that will simply delay the inevitable?
Ironically, routine can help our bodies behave. But routine can also be a tyrant. For the last few months, I demanded of myself that I do two yoga practices a day, come hellfire or whatever. I wasn’t allowing for some days when I might want three, and some days when I might want zero. But I am learning that sometimes what I think I want is not what will in fact feel life-giving. So perhaps my desire for zero yoga in a day is…wrong?
Anyway, I did run today, so I’m in migraine city, and this is getting rather long and pointless, but in the spirit of finding what feels good I am deciding not to edit it down. Bless you all for your patient reading.