One of my earliest yoga experiences was with a local man, who we’ll call Ed (why not) . Ed taught a Saturday morning donation (pay-what-you-can) class outside by the community pool at his condo. I’ve written before about how magical yoga felt to me in those early days– like falling in love, or coming home, or having a curtain pulled back and suddenly seeing the world in such a clear and lovely way.
As far as I was concerned, Ed was the Real Deal. He burned incense, he anointed our wrists with essential oils, he read from Meditations From the Mat, and, on special days, he even played guitar during Savasana. I mean. What more could you ask? (As you can probably tell, I fell a little bit in love with Ed, too, during that first yoga honeymoon phase).
I came to each class feeling a little bit brave (my social anxiety made any outing feel a little brave), but also a little bit like I was Doing Something Really Special. If you have ever been in love with yoga, then you know that feeling. I looked forward to it all week. I didn’t always understand the postures, or the yogic spiritual teachings that Ed thoughtfully shared, but I had a sense that something special was unfolding and I wanted more of it.
The easiest way into yoga for many of us is through the physical postures– the asana. I brought all of my best work ethic to my mat. I pushed through the pain in Pigeon (oops), I held my leg up in front of me until it burned, I fell out of Crow pose over and over and over. It was the only way I knew to feel as though I could progress, or steep myself more in this practice that was transforming me and my life experience.
One day, Ed didn’t show up for class– instead, he sent a substitute teacher. Let’s call her Cassie. Cassie was tall and thin, with flowing hair and a breezy yoga outfit that looked as though she’d stepped off the cover of Yoga Journal magazine (which, let us not forget, largely features thin white women, so that’s not super surprising).
Cassie was also INCREDIBLY mobile. Her poses were effortless, with a range of motion that could easily have qualified her for Cirque du Soleil. She could do things that my body couldn’t, and for the first time I thought I saw where I wanted this yoga practice to take me.
After class, I approached her and asked, “How long will I have to do yoga before my body can do things like yours?”
Cassie looked at me, and laughed self-deprecatingly, even waving her hand a little bit in front of her as if to brush away the idea. “Oh, I was just born this way.”
I felt a little bit as though I had been running full-speed and encountered a clothesline– that was the force of my reaction to her response. I didn’t know what to say. Did this mean that I wouldn’t be able to do the things she could do? Would I never put my leg behind my head? Was I simply lacking the gift of mobility? Was my yoga practice all for nothing?
It would take me another decade to recognize that Cassie’s response was actually full of wisdom. During those ten years, I continued to work hard, undeterred. I knew that the physical practices of yoga were changing my body. I became stronger in many ways, and more mobile in others. I did indeed find a way to get not one, but both legs behind my head. I worked so well that I inevitably injured myself, and found that my practice wasn’t really as balanced or healthy as I’d thought it was– but that’s another story.
The truth is, though Cassie dropped it like an offhand remark, that there are some things that our bodies are just born with, and that we will not be able to change. There are poses that I struggle with and always will. I can’t change the shape or the length of my bones.
I didn’t yet recognize that the yoga postures were the least important thing about the practice. What changed my life wasn’t improved external hip rotation or the perfect arm balance, but the quality of awareness, vitality and presence that followed me from the mat into the rest of my life.
Cassie was born her way, and I was born mine. We’re all born this way– whatever “this way” means in your body/heart/mind. The practices of yoga (beyond the postures) allow us to witness the truth of our circumstances and to work skillfully with them.
Occasionally I get a question like the one I asked Cassie so many years ago. I understand the excitement and attraction of wanting to change our bodies, to make them do challenging things or to get out of pain, and I never want to take away from that experience– it’s how I got to be where I am, after all. So I tell them their bodies will probably change and be able to do different things, and they might feel better, but along the way each of us will have our own challenges and limitations. And– if they’re able to hear me– I tell them that they may come to find that the most important things they get from the yoga practice have nothing to do with their bodies at all.