When I first started doing lots of yoga, I pushed myself hard. I shamelessly (but subtly of course) competed with whomever was on the mat next to me, pulling myself harder into each forward bend as if the enlightenment trophy was going to be awarded to the most hard-working yogi at the end of class. If that didn’t take me past my edge, I competed with myself, all to the inner chorus of “Come on, Kimber, don’t be such a wuss. Sure it hurts, but change hurts, baby! Suck it up.” You can imagine the inevitable results. I injured myself. Not just once, not twice, but over and over again. For a while I convinced myself it was the teacher. “That teacher was bad,” I’d say to myself, groaning over my strained knees. “I’m never going back to that class!” Eventually, I ran out of teachers to blame my pain on, and had the late-arriving epiphany… I was hurting myself.
Hearing the story of Buddha and Mara (see Part 7 above), I started to get curious about my inner pushy voice. Whose voice was it? Where did it come from? Immediately I suspected my stern Marine colonel grandfather whose approval I never earned. Or my middle school softball coach who pretended he was a Marine colonel. Or, even more likely, my inner anorexic, in her full glory, skinny as a rail, anxious with hunger, tanned to raw hide perfection, cheeks gaunt, lipstick perfect, glaring at me in utter distaste down her too-narrow nose.
Rolling out my yoga mat, I lay down, closed my eyes, and contemplated. For the first time ever, I called to my inner demon, “Come out, come out, wherever you are….” Never before had I asked the voice to come to me, it had always arrived unbidden, unwelcomed; right at the moment I needed to back off, it would tell me to push harder. I imagined myself at the table of a cozy little cottage, a tea setting with thick mugs and cookies in the center. The faint sound of footsteps crunched on the pathway outside, and I nervously rose to answer the door. I took ahold of the doorknob and pulled the door wide. For a moment, I thought I’d made a mistake. This was not my inner anorexic, or my grandfather, or any character from my past. This woman was tall and thick, dressed in an ill-fitting seventies-style blue sweatsuit tugging at the seams. She didn't look like a gymnast... more powerful, like a hammer thrower. Her hair was pulled back severely from her face into a tight blonde-gray ponytail, her soft cheeks reddened from the cold, and perhaps too much tipple. She barely glanced at me as she strode through the door, intent on warming herself around the cup of tea and sampling the cookies.
I sat down and watched her as she settled into her repast, amazed. Her name, it turns out, was Svetlana, and she was a Russian gymnastics coach. I’d never done much gymnastics as a kid, and as a Russian history major in college, had a deep love for all things Russian. How had she had emerged, fully formed from my unconscious? But there she was.
Slow understanding dawned on me. She wasn’t trying to make me look like her, or be her. Pushing me was her job, that was all. She’d much rather be here enjoying cookies and tea by the fire than standing in a drafty gymnasium yelling at me and furtively taking swigs of vodka from her flask. She had her own weaknesses, failings, and resentments, having nothing to do with me. For all these years I’d taken her voice as the voice of authority in my life, and in my yoga practice, and why?
“Svetlana, thanks for coming to tea,” I said. “Can you please use a quieter tone of voice from now on? And by the way, I’m not going to listen to you as much anymore.” Raising a pale eyebrow, she shrugged her shoulders and nodded her thanks, grabbing one more cookie on her way out the door.
The next time I found myself in yoga class, I felt the familiar urge to pull myself into a deep forward bend using excessive force and insufficient respect for my back. Briefly, the interior of the cottage flickered in my mind, and I heard Svetlana’s sneakers crunching up the path. Her hand rattled the doorknob for a moment. Taking a deep breath, I waved the image away. Letting go of the pose, I settled back into it with a sense of clarity. I would practice alone on my mat tonight. Svetlana could have the night off.
Next post: Calling a truce with your own demons