Recently I have been cheating on Yoga with Tai Chi. I had been struggling with Yoga, expecting too much of myself, and it became a pressure war – why am I not better at this? Everyone can do this but me. I used to be better at this, before I sprained my ankle and took a year off; why oh why doesn’t it come easier to me? Who is this new teacher and why does she expect so much of me? Why does this teacher who I like so much expect so much of me?
So in the last week of October, I snuck out of Yoga and into Tai Chi. To be honest, I have the same thoughts there but at least I have an excuse for not being as good as everyone else since it is new to me. Since then, I’ve been to Tai Chi less than ten times, due to illness and travel and cheating on Tai Chi with sleep.
It’s not even really Tai Chi because that isn’t offered in the morning, only the afternoon, and I want a class that’s in the morning. I think of it as the class you take in order to get in shape for Tai Chi (or the class you take when you aren’t in good enough shape for Tai Chi). And it’s physically exhausting. Most of the people in the class are older than I am and, right now, that’s enough for me. They are welcoming and accepted me from day 1. It’s a small class, so there are fewer people to see me fail, and that’s fine with me. Sometimes you need to fail in semi-private before failing in public. One of my classmates asked me yesterday if I would be taking an upcoming workshop. “It’s great,” she said, “You hold Horse for 20 minutes.”
Stand up, now sink down like you were sitting on the back of a horse: your feet slightly wider than your shoulders (horses are wide), your legs slightly bent outwards (think bowlegged) almost but quite not so bent that your butt is below knee level, tail tucked under like you’re relaxed into a western saddle at the end of a long day, your shoulders with that cowboy slump, but your chest up and head alert, as if you are lazily watching just in case a cow makes a break from the herd or a coyote appears over the ridge. Weight in your heels. Now extend your arms, as if you were holding the reins English-style, your wrists resting gently on your horse’s raised neck. Breathe. Relax everything except your quad’s. That’s (my beginner’s interpretation of) Horse.
Now hold it for as long as you can. I’ll wait…
…Now imagine holding it for 20 minutes.
So I replied with a smile, “Maybe later, in a few months, when I am stronger.”
The hardest part of the class for me is not actually Horse, or Frog (imagine Horse, but with your back straight and your hands lightly touching the ground in front of you) or even Fish Leaps Up, where you raise yourself onto your toes, very slowly, high up onto your toes, while breathing in, and then slowly lower your heels to the ground while breathing out, an exercise my injured ankle protests and my other ankle also protests in sympathy at. The hardest part for me is the breathing, which is one of the reasons that I chose Tai Chi. I know I have trouble breathing, I don’t breathe all the way out, so my in-breaths are shallow. So any of the Lion exercises (Yawning Lion, for example) are a challenge.
“I’m struggling with this one,” I said to the teacher, one morning after class. He smiled in surprise. “It’s your third class,” he replied, “Give yourself a break.” And I recognized myself. Oh yes, there I go again. That’s me. Right.
And each class, as we have Lion’ed, I have reminded myself of that conversation and just tried to do the exercise and trust that, although I struggle now, it will get easier the longer that I do it. Or it won’t because the destination is not the journey, and the journey is what is important. And then I forget and beat myself up, and then I recognize myself again, and laugh and stop beating myself up.
And yesterday I began to catch glimpses of what it felt like to do it as I might do it if I had been doing it a long time.
Got it! My mind called out and I instantly grabbed at it – there it is! That’s what it’s supposed to feel like! And then lost it again. Beat myself up, recognized myself, let go of the beating up, relaxed into the exercise again – and then glimpsed it again. Aha! And lost it again.
This is what change feels like. You approach something new with anticipation. You start doing it and find it is not as easy as your enthusiasm led you to believe and sink into the pit of despair, sure that you will never achieve it. The pit of despair is cold and dark and enveloping, and you are tempted to stay there, wrapped in warm blanket, and feel sorry for yourself, staring at the TV and eating Cheetos and drinking beer. But then something or someone impels you forward and you take a step up the long slope out of despair. And then another step. And then you think, “I’m doing it!” And immediately slide back down the gravelly slope. Pick yourself up, take a step and another step and another. “I’m doing it!” And slide again. Repeating until finally you reach the top and master whatever it is you’re doing.
Sometimes that thing is Tai Chi (or whatever this morning class that I’m taking is called); sometimes it’s Yoga.
Sometimes it’s life.
This is the point where in Yoga they say Namaste; and in my new class, my classmate rings the gong.
Some days, the sound of the gong is my favorite part of class.