‘I kept pushing myself and attempting postures I wasn’t ready for because I was determined to make it happen. What I ended up doing, of course, was getting injured.’
Whenever I tell a male friend that I’m doing yoga these days, they often reply, “I should give that a try, I’m not flexible at all.” My response is always, “You’d be surprised at how much strength it builds. It’s a great workout.”
Typically I get a nod, a wink, or a “Yeah, I bet,” but I know that most guys have no clue about how much strength is required to do these poses properly. I certainly didn’t.
After discovering in my first class that I was the weakest person in the room, I set out to rectify the situation. I got so caught up in building physical strength, I lost sight of a fundamental principle: it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. This is my practice. This is my body. Only I know what is right for me.
But I kept pushing myself and attempting postures that I wasn’t ready for because I was determined to make it happen. What I ended up doing, of course, was getting injured. I threw out my back and couldn’t do yoga for three months.
Then I pulled muscles in the groin and shoulder; but I wasn’t the only one. I saw fellow yogis, mostly women, pushing themselves just as hard and getting hurt.
Somewhere along my journey I realized that the most important muscle to strengthen is the mind. In my case, it was the muscle in most need of development.
We would be told in class to focus on being present, to let go of where we were before class, or where we were headed afterward. I would implore my mind to cease thought immediately and within a nanosecond, layers of voices were yakking away like kids in a classroom with a substitute teacher.
Even when I managed to obtain a moment of silence, the chatter was back quickly.
They say the physical postures of yoga are a preparation for meditation. I have no idea how many people who do yoga also meditate, but even if one came to the mat solely for the pure physical experience, the mental part happens anyway, especially if your instructor focuses on breath.
After numerous injuries I concluded that without the ability to ignore what others were doing, I was going to end up on permanent injured reserve. I had to find the courage to modify a posture even if I was the only one in the room doing that.
Headstand posed particular challenges. I was hopeless at it and I’d fling myself upward, risking serious injury to myself and nearby yogis. But I also realized that when we did this posture, it conjured up uncomfortable emotions. I felt inadequate, weak, and embarrassed, much the way I did back in high school when we did gymnastics. I didn’t flip, climb or tumble, and those three weeks each year were torture.
And here I was in yoga class with a bunch of women effortlessly doing headstand and I’m on my mat, an emotional wreck. But I was also afraid, afraid of falling or wrenching my neck or throwing out my back again.
If I wanted to stick with yoga, I needed to control my ego, quiet my mind, and focus on mastering the prep positions. It wasn’t easy and it required every ounce of strength I could muster, but I persevered.
I soon discovered that my practice improved. By doing less, I did more. It still took five years to do a classic headstand, but when it happened, it happened effortlessly.
I must admit that if I’d known when I started yoga that it would force me to confront my ego and fears, I may have run for the door, but there is no doubt that these discoveries made on the mat have paid dividends off the mat, too.