How many of us have said those words aloud but known they were total bullshit?
My guess is that basically all of you have.
I’ve said those words, or something like them, probably a thousand times. I’ve wanted to mean them. I’ve understood them to be the right thing to say. But, in reality, my pride was always inflated when I’d be given a shiny new pose, and I am always overjoyed when I finally nail one I’ve been working on. Not on the surface, of course. I do my best humble yogi impression as to not reveal my true feelings. You too, right? None of this is malicious. We have the best of intentions. We don’t mean to be deceiving, but those damn feelings just won’t stop and it’s not something we’re comfortable talking about. So we lie. We lie to ourselves and to each other. A fake it ’til we make it strategy, perhaps.
But I’m not making it. Deep down I very much care about the poses.
You see, cool postures make me feel talented and worthy. Each cool pose I can do is one rung higher on the ladder of significance, both in my own mind, and if we’re being honest about our community, in the minds of many fellow yogis. The pressure to be a yogi superstar who can handstand and backbend like a circus performer permeates our western yoga culture. The stunning scorpion handstand picture gets 10,000 likes on Instagram, while the new yogi barely touching her toes gets no such fanfare. There is no reason for this other than the fact that one posture is cooler and more coveted than the other. If you can’t do the fancy stuff, you are often left feeling like you haven’t “arrived” yet, as though there is a special yogi’s club whose secret handshake is getting your leg behind your head.
None of us want to feel like the postures are a measure of our yogi-ness or value to our community. We know better. We see the absurdity of it. We can often even rise above it; it’s just that when we’re being brutally, unabashedly honest, those feelings do exist for us underneath our higher thinking. These feelings are not intellectual. Our rational mind easily understands how little the postures matter. This is not the result of not knowing or wanting better. These issues simply exist in a place unaffected by our rational mind—somewhere deep in the emotional body.
Some might ask, “What’s the harm in feeling proud of your asana practice or coveting fancy postures? What’s the big deal?” Well, the flip side of pride is shame, and flip side of desire is disappointment. The constant vacillation between the two extremes results in unsteadiness of the mind and spirit. For every peak of our ego there is an equally large valley of sadness, self-loathing, and shame. We spend endless amounts of energy riding the waves up and down instead of just hopping of the surf board and observing from the beach. This is why yoga exists. The entire premise of the practice is that equanimity and non-attachment are healthier and more productive than these peaks and valleys. Yoga philosophy posits that damage can be done by this imbalance. When our sense of self gets tied up in asana, we risk our mental, spiritual, and physical health.
So, what are we to do?
First of all, let’s not panic. This is normal human behavior, and I’d be suspicious of anyone who claims to not struggle with this on some level. Let us not make the painful mistake of being flawed, then on top of that, being ashamed of those flaws. The practice gives us the philosophical and practical framework we need to learn to better handle this conundrum. There is hope for even the most afflicted among us.
Personally, I have made lots of progress despite how deep this issue goes for me. These days, I am willing, even eager, to work on postures that humble me to my core, even in the presence of others. I have truly learned to be curious to see what I’m made of in the face of weakness and defeat. And I no longer yearn for fancy poses like I used to. Like at the end of the movie The Matrix when Neo finally begins to see everything in code, I am usually able to see through the exterior of the pose and appreciate the work being done on the inside, which happens in any pose no matter the complexity. I can also identify feelings of inadequacy and envy right as they bubble up, and then redirect my focus before they take me to that dark place of self-loathing. Usually, anyway. I stumble everyday, but year by year I’m inching toward relief.
If you’re struggling with pride, shame, desire, and disappointment in your practice, I think the answer partly lies in cultivating self-awareness through Svadhyaya (self-study) and in the practice of Satya (truthfulness). We must be honest with ourselves and look closely at the ups and downs we experience on our mats. Again, not in a panicky, self-loathing way, but in a measured, responsible fashion so we know we’re receiving the lessons the practice is presenting. Fooling ourselves by pretending we’re no longer caught in the struggle isn’t going to do the trick, and is a stumbling block in and of itself. I say this because I see so many of us, myself included, pretending we’re something we’re not in an effort to both appear and feel more yogic—whatever that means. I think that is a spiritual dead end. We must humble ourselves and admit where we truly are. Instead of saying, “I don’t care about the poses”, maybe we could say, “I’m still learning how to not care about the poses.” Imagine how powerful it would be to be rooted firmly in our honest truth, reveal it to others, and hear someone else say, “me too.” That alone can move mountains, both for you and others. Shame cannot survive in the light.
But—and this is a big but—we cannot become attached to when or how transformation happens. It will likely be a slow, arduous process, and we must be patient and compassionate with ourselves as we navigate our humanity. There is so much to learn and it’s ok that we haven’t mastered everything–or anything–yet. It’s okay to still suck at all of this.
If you care deeply about the poses like the rest of us, you are not broken. Do your best, but don’t despair. Just keep practicing—trying, observing, listening, and learning—on and off your mat.
Take your practice and all is coming.