December 21, 2013

It’s All Yoga. ~ Melissa Petty

I have been a part of the yoga community (in varying degrees) since I was 16.

In that time, I have had the opportunity to forge bonds with both myself and others.

Bonds that have changed me in unforeseen ways. However, in this same time I have had the misfortune of feeling judged, misunderstood and typecast.

The opportunity to immerse myself in my 200 hour training came around during a time in my life when I really needed it. I was excited to test myself physically and emotionally, to explore my own consciousness, and to just breath. It felt serendipitous. But the challenges that I would be faced and the changes that took place within the months following were ones that I had not imagined.

I have never in my life been what most people would consider “athletic.” I’m a mess at group sports for the most part. I had a boyfriend who told me regularly that I was as graceful as a swan (his words were thick with sarcasm).

However, when I came to my mat everything felt light and easy. Backbends came as naturally to me as breathing. My practice was the place that I felt most confident and present. The shapes I made with my body helped me understand myself better.

Which is why it was so disheartening during the span of my nine-month teacher training that I was picked apart physically. I was “trying too hard.” I was “muscling through it.” I was made to feel as though I could do no right. Every time (and I mean every time) I stood up my posture was corrected.

The woman who lead the training and I had very fundamentally different views. I’m a stubborn creature. Couple that with my ever growing sense that I was under attack, it shouldn’t be surprising that I was unwilling to adapt.

I recall one homework assignment in particular where we were asked to come into tree pose and imagine ourselves as a tree and write about the experience. Incredulous at the exercise I scribbled on my paper, “I’m not a tree. I’m a fucking person.”

After a frustrating weekend of training I received an email from one of the other students, “I see your struggle,” she wrote. “We all see how hard she is on you. But just know that she is trying to make you better.”

It didn’t change the fact that during that time I felt like a stranger to myself when I came to my mat. I was self-conscious and ashamed of the way my body moved.

Sure, my ego was bruised—but, what was more damaging was that I felt like I had to hide it away. I buried it under thick icy layers of skepticism. Distancing myself from my ego meant that I created a discord between the way that I was acting and my own true nature. I mourned for the days when yoga was light, because at that point I could barely look at my mat.

Almost two years later with clearer vision and a more rational mindset, I see the ways in which I could have softened to the situation.

I understand now that the yoga that I practice, the way I connect with it, is more physically based. I need to feel sensation, get in touch with my own “human-ness,” and yes: that includes my ego. I don’t see it as an evil little monster that I have to suppress. When I am acutely aware of my ego I am able to keep it in check. This relationship is vital for me as both a student and a teacher.

I have been fortunate enough that since my training I have been able to find my voice, and others who think and feel about their practice the same way I do about my own.

There are still moments that are hard to bear, that conjure up those 9 months of criticism. When I hear or read people doling out judgments as to what is “real” or “authentic” and what is not I can’t help but cringe.

It’s hard to deny or turn an eye to those sessions of mud-slinging because they happen within every different sect of the community. Instagram yogis are full of ego and cause injuries. Power yoga has become a curse word in some circles worthy of only eye rolls and scoffing. Slower hatha classes are “assisted naps.” It happens every where, all the time, even here on this very website.

As a yogi (hell, as a person), I have my preferences—things that speak to me on a very basic level, and things that just miss the mark. That being said, just because certain styles don’t resonate with me or are incongruent with my views doesn’t make them inauthentic—it just makes them different.

In addition to the typical varieties of “shaming” (on an aside, I really hate that concept), I have noticed lately that lists of “do’s” and “don’ts” for yoga classes have been cropping up all over the place. I’m sure these are meant to put new students at ease, but even as a person who’s “been around the block” I find them daunting.

Some instructions are reasonable: “don’t wear shoes in the room,” “don’t bring your cell phone with you.” Some, though, I find upsetting: “don’t breathe too loud,” “don’t wear (fill in the blank),” “don’t sweat too much.”

The issue here is that we’re assigning motive to people’s actions—motives we can never know for sure. We assume that they are looking for attention or are purposefully being disruptive, but these assumptions are naive and self-serving.

The man breathing loudly might have a very stressful job and his hour on the mat is his time to get it all out. The  girl having a wardrobe malfunction may already be self-conscious about it (give her a break). The woman who “strolled in” ten minutes late might have left a house with a screaming toddler for her one hour of sanity. And the really sweaty guy? He can’t help it, so lay off.

If you happen to be bothered by the person next to you breathing loudly…maybe it’s time for some self work to understand why it annoys you so much.

As far as I am concerned, the yoga studio is a place to step away from judgment and into your own skin.

I wish that we could find a respect for the yoga of others even if it is not our own. My personal moments of enlightenment shouldn’t count any less just because they arrive soaked in sweat.

I need my fire to burn bright and white hot. It is the best way I know to get out of my own way, to quell the voices of doubt and insecurity, to burn down the walls I have built around myself. And so, when I lay in savasana as a pile of ashes, I am at peace and ready to move forward with whatever came to me during my practice.

I am aware and have respect for those who unwind their bodies with slow yin practices, those who enjoy a solitary, silent flow, and those who thrive in the energy of a packed vigorous class.

It’s all yoga, even if it’s not my yoga.

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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Courtesy of Author

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Melissa Petty