You Are Perfect As You Are: A Yoga Journey

It was Easter Sunday, 1997, when I saw my first yoga pose. Sometime after church and before brunch my college friend wedged himself between the upright piano and the sofa and wobbled into ardichandrasana. Half-moon pose. Sucking in his breath, he struggled to say, "This is the kind of stuff you can do in yoga."

It looked cool, but I kept my response low-key.   John and I had met in our college fitness center, but I didn’t think much of his work-out strategy.  As far as I could tell, his cardio consisted of leisurely pedaling a recumbent bike and turning the pages of his paperback book.  He built his biceps by pushing his glasses back up his nose when they had slipped down.  I, on the other hand, was a recent refugee from my division one college track team and a maniac on the machines.  I pedaled and sprinted and lifted like a woman on fire, desperate to feel in my body the intensity I was used to.  And more desperate to flee the intensity of my mind’s new anxieties. 

I was twenty years old and unmoored from not just a specific afternoon training regime – what do most people do from 3-6 pm every day?! – but from my sense of self.  The removal of competitive athletics from my life felt like the amputation of my favorite limb.  Who was I without the daily physical practice designed to improve me?  How would I motivate myself without the draw of competition, the possibility of winning, the desire to please my coach?  Which equivalent activity would make me feel good in my body? And what in God’s name would happen to all the muscle mass I had developed while training?  I imagined my triceps dripping with flesh, my thighs becoming as soft as ice cream, my purpose melting into a mush of undisciplined mud, like so much Spring snow.   

I ran hard, and each stride that I thought would take me away from the insecurity I felt was instead solidifying the sentiment that I would be worthy when I achieved, I would be whole when I accomplished, I would be at ease when I had the approval of others.
We learn early in life, writes Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach, that any affiliation – with family and friends, at school or in the workplace – requires proving that we are worthy.  We are under pressure to compete with each other, to get ahead, to stand out as intelligent, attractive, capable, powerful, wealthy. Someone is always keeping score.

For most of my life that someone has been me.  As the youngest of four in a family where all of my siblings were decorated athletes, I yearned to stand out. Sure, the desire for achievement was conditioned within that family structure and certainly within my midwestern sports-loving environment, but more than that it resonated with who I already was, clicked into something pre-existing in my body, my heart, and my whole being.  I loved to compete. I felt born to do it. The training, the jitters, the adrenaline, the success.  Keeping score. Memorizing my personal bests.  Getting chewed out by a coach and then surpassing his expectations.  All of it invigorated me, like a caffeine cocktail of I am not enough mixed with Oh yeah?  Watch me!  This loop of shame and the need to achieve gave me a sense of usefulness and focus, something to work at and towards, something to offer, and this offering was, I unconsciously believed, the ticket to my belonging. To my family.  To the world.  To myself.  Especially, to myself.

The day I met John he was enjoying a sweat-free ride on the bike and reading The Brothers Karamazov.  Reading was my other passion, and so I smiled when I saw him with my favorite novel. He smiled back, and we became fast friends.  We worked out next to each other, cooked elaborate dinners once a month and fancied ourselves cultured philosophers.  Before long, he was telling me about his new interest in yoga, this physical and philosophical system that had originated in India.  I was intrigued but wary.  I had grown up a conservative Christian, and though I was in the midst of the deep questioning that would move me away from the traditional practices of my upbringing, I was also worried that yoga might be a cult. 

"Nah," said John.  "It just feels really good."

And so I found myself on Easter Sunday attempting to balance in half-moon pose. Casually, and with confidence, I bent down, lifted a leg... and toppled over. Surprised by my lack of instant success, I laughed and tried again.  Same thing.  Bent down, lifted a leg, toppled over.  Again and again and again. Soon, I stopped laughing. Clutching my toes and gritting my teeth, I engaged my muscles in all the ways I knew how. Yet again, no luck. That familiar cocktail of shame and internal pressure presented itself, and I drunk deep, letting it energize the engine of my ego. Ardichan-freaking-whatever was going down! 

Concentration, writes Eddie Stern in One Simple Thing, does not mean screwing the mind into a fixed state of focus, and the practice of postures does not mean forcing the body into complicated poses:  both are about achieving calmness and filling the mind with the natural state of goodness.

Later I would understand this.  Later I would see - and feel - the importance of love being at the heart of our breath, our action, and our effort.  But at that time, when I finally stuck the pose from the force of my will, I believed I had done yoga.  Did the pose feel good like John had promised? I didn’t really know, having not been at all present in my body, but accomplishing the goal definitely did.  And that was all I needed to decide that yoga would become my new thing.

Ego, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Choygam Trungpa writes, can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality.

In other words, we are who we are, and until we see clearly the deeply held values, attitudes and beliefs that animate our endeavors, we will approach all that we do in the same manner. Sports or spiritual practice.  High jump or Half Moon. The field of activity was all the same to my unconscious self, a self that was determined to ease a sense of unworthiness by becoming better, by achieving precision, by garnering admiration. Consciously, of course, I just loved it.  It felt new and different and exciting. It felt a little rebellious and also resonant and as right as anything I'd ever done. And it was, though for reasons I couldn't know when I started out.  But the ancient yogis knew. The system and practice is designed to slowly soften us up, quiet us down, and bring clarity.  Key word: slowly. 

I inched my way towards becoming a regular practitioner.  In 1998, a boyfriend gave me an Ashtanga yoga cassette tape, and I practiced in my bedroom without ever having seen the shapes.  In 1999, I took a community class in a high school library. Musty carpet. Teenagers running around. My friend with more reach in her forward bend than me.  In 2000 I bought an Ashtanga yoga book and followed the primary series by looking at pictures. Imitate. Count 5 breaths.  Collapse out of the pose.  Turn a page.  An unknowable force, an urge beneath my will, compelled me on.

Finally, in 2001, I discovered an Ashtanga-based studio, and within the presence of a community, a skilled teacher, and a regular practice, I landed solidly on the path. Mysterious compulsion became conscious adoration.  I loved everything about the practice. The smell of incense. The sound of the harmonium.  The experience of chanting. The first stretch in my body and the relief that quickly followed.  The routine and orderly sequence of postures.  The feeling of the ujjayi breath, a breath I was learning to link with my physical movement in a way that supported, calmed, and focused me.  I loved reciting the yamas and the niyamas, the ethical rules of yoga, and considering how I could become kinder, more loving, and better able to serve.  Through regular, uninterrupted practice, I began to heal a long-term back problem, and I found myself more at home in my body, more settled into my newfound identity. 

Still, I practiced yoga with a familiar checklist: Was I improving? Was I as good or better than others? Was my teacher impressed?  The language around yoga was kind and non-competitive, and the teachings encouraged relaxation and ease, so I worked hard to relax and I struggled to find ease and I measured how competitive I was being.  Never once did I recognize the irony in using force to cultivate gentleness. 

When we are caught in the trance of unworthiness, Brach writes, we do not recognize what is happening inside us... our view of who we are is contorted and narrowed.

I did feel better in countless ways - as my friend had predicted - and I was receiving the "low-hanging fruit" of asana practice, as Eddie Stern calls these first felt benefits, but deep down my self-judgement and habitual attitude - my "trance of unworthiness"  - fueled my actions on the mat and off.

One of the most important tenets of yoga is that the level of the problem is not the level of the solution, writes Deepak Chopra in his foreword to  One Simple ThingAs long as we remain inside the state of self-division, we are dominated by it.

As long as I used yoga (or relationships or prayer or food or service or work or anything else) as another perfection-building, achievement-collecting activity that soothed my sense of unworthiness, then I would remain in the very same state of anxiety and division that I was seeking to repair.  While I was ignorant still of so many of my deep motivations and how they impacted my choices, I also had no recognition of how at the same time yoga was deeply and subtly healing me. Thanks to the space it opens in the body and the quietness it brings to the mind, all we have to do is regularly show up on the mat and the narrowed and contorted view that Brach writes about will widen. At some point a true, clear reflection of our inherent worthiness will reveal itself. 

One afternoon, an unfamiliar substitute teacher stood at the front of my class. My mind tightened and my heart uttered a disappointing grumble.  As the practice began, however, I relaxed.  The asana and the breath, in their wisdom, guided me towards a more open state.  At one point, while I folded forward in Parsvottanasana, my hands pressed in prayer behind my back, my forehead against my shin, I heard the teacher say, as if directly into my ear,  

You are perfect just where you are, as you are.  

I almost fell over from the resonance of her words, and just like that, I found myself crying. I stayed in the shape, tears dripping onto the mat, and then I stood, tears dripping down my cheeks, and finally I found my way to tadasana, still crying.  Though I was flabbergasted by my reaction, I was not embarrassed.  Instead, I was amazed.  Perfect?!  Just where I was?  There was nothing I needed to prove or fix or become? The truth of this inherent wholeness  - a seed that had been planted in me with every physical shape, every focused breath, every recitation of the sutras – bloomed in my heart-mind like the sudden golden eruption of a forsythia flower.  Every cell of my body recognized this truth.  It was grace.  It was the divine breath within me. It was Love creating me and all things.  It was the animating force of the universe.  Mystical, mysterious, undeniable truth.  I had known it forever but under the conditions of being human I had forgotten.  And here it was, making itself known in an average yoga class with a decent substitute that I had been grumpy about.  I was exactly as I was meant to be right at that moment. No more, no less, nothing to do, nothing to feel, nothing to correct, nothing to prove, nowhere to go.  Whole. Aligned. Connected.  As is.

Joy carried me through the rest of that class, and I can still, at will, return to that wonder whenever the tyranny of my ego asserts her will, propels me forward from the lie that we are flawed outcasts and must prove our worthiness.  That in order to belong we must control our bodies, our emotions, our surroundings, other people. 

The good news about the fear that we must somehow prove our worthiness, this belief that we are not enough, is that it is actually a universal human condition. We all feel this fear in one way or another. We are not alone in our in wondering if we truly belong here - in this body, in this life.  And so true freedom and ease starts when we see that we are not different from others, better than others, worse than others, separate in our condition. You are perfect where you are, my teacher said that day.  It could be translated as THIS is where you are and THIS is all there is and THIS refers to the perfection of the moment. When we release our fears about where we are going or where we have been  or how we compare and we find stillness in this place - accepting with gentleness this placefor what it is (often complex, messy, loud, painful and more!) - we uncover the truth of our wholeness and our inherent goodness.  We accept ourselves as we are.

I remember this anew every time I practice, but as I live my life I easily forget.  The habits of our beliefs are hard and a lot of practice and a lot time is required for them to dissolve and soften. And so with commitment we must be willing to try new things, new ways, new approaches.  Give meditation a try. Open your voice and chant.  Buy a book about the sutras and read. Study the technique of the poses more closely.  Try a different style of yoga. Take another step in.  Most importantly, stay at it.  Clear seeing together with compassionate action will over time result in incredible transformation.  

What is the story of your yoga journey? Whether you’ve only ever done one class, a few poses, or are a decades-long practitioner, take a moment and consider your relationship with the practice.  How did you find it?   How has it impacted your body, your mind, your energy, and your heart?  What has eased for you and where, too, do you recognize the hope for growth?  What limiting stories or feelings of shame and insecurity keep you stuck in an unhealthy pattern? How might you apply to your practice the act of both seeing clearly and moving with compassion? 

Catskills Yoga House is always here to hold space for you, to remind you of your inherent wholeness, and to  encourage your growth.   We are together in this. Perfect in this moment.  Breath, body, heart, energy. Nothing more.  Just this.  Just this.
As always, I am gratefully yours, perfectly imperfect, 

I have no idea what happened to my old friend John, but I would love to say thank you for introducing me to a practice that has changed my life.  I also wouldn't mind showing him how well I can both pronounce and do ardichandrasana now.  See... we never really change THAT much. :)

2001, me being very serious about my yoga

2001, me being very serious about my yoga