I’m sitting happily on my mat, awaiting the start of a basic yoga class. Roving around the room, still helping to settle the newcomers, C. begins the litany of the commands that will lead us into Sukasana, an easy version of sitting cross-legged.
“Extend your legs.”
I’m anticipating her instructions just slightly. By now I’ve done this many times, but I love getting told what to do. It’s like taking a test when you already know you will get a perfect score—very satisfying.
“Bend your knees. Flex your feet. Externally rotate your right leg—if you don’t know what I mean, you can look at what K. is doing,” C. says.
K. is me! I sit up a little straighter. Indeed, I’m extremely pleased to be mentioned, at least until my buddy R., a sixth-grade teacher, emits an emphatic noise from the mat to my left.
“Brownnoser!” she hisses.
I turn to R., roll my eyes, and laugh. Ha, ha, very funny! I hope that for a second we’re like two kids passing notes in the back of the class—you know, infinitesimally disruptive. Not teacher’s pets. Not brownnosers at all.
As class begins in earnest, I’m thinking that later I’ll set R. straight about how I’m really a rebel. (Not now, because C. just told us to close our eyes and focus quietly on our breath.)
I never do, of course, because by the end of the session I’ve realized that in a way what R. said is totally true: when it comes to yoga, I love following the rules.
* * *
That thought is a surprise. It shouldn’t have been, I suppose, since I’m seriously law-abiding, but then again: our lived reality and our internal experience don’t always jibe.
In my mind, I’m not malleable. I’m defiant. I live in a perpetual state of resistance. I’ll do what I’m told, I think, but I don’t have to like it.
How come, in yoga, I do?
It may seem weird to leap from the simple matter of accepting a teacher’s guidance to the whole matter of oppressive ideologies, but that’s where it goes for me.
I grew up with parents who’d spent their formative years fearing Nazism, McCarthyism, and religious fundamentalism—terrible things. All may have begun with an assertion of shared and ostensibly positive values, but they swiftly morphed into intolerance, and worse.
As I understood it—and mind you, these were simply the interpretations of a wide-eared child, with no comprehension of nuance or hyperbole—my father believed that social movements by their very nature consisted of people who had subordinated their individual will to some larger, collective imperative.
These people were sheep, but potentially very dangerous sheep. Before long, these they would be hard at work trying to impose their shared values and their rules on you.
My father opposed the Vietnam War and supported civil rights, but he did not seem to be in favor of antiwar rallies, protest marches, churches, politicians, team spirit, community activism, Ralph Nader, or block associations.
(Theater, movies, books, wildflowers, trees, houseplants, butter, Lorna Doone cookies, sorbet, shrimp curry, some dogs, and Thoreau were okay.)
A better child than I might have emerged as an impassioned foe of injustice and intolerance, but I emerged with a deep suspicion of group activities.
I had no idea what was safe to believe in. I had no confidence in my own moral fiber. I was afraid that even the smallest act of participation might be enough to lead someone as weak-willed as myself to a life of blind following.
I was terrified by what faith in anything, particularly if others believed in it also, might make me want to do. I might start telling other people what to do. I’d be a brownnoser one day, and a brownshirt the next.
Why not defy the group? To me, even the mildest sharing of divergent views felt like confrontation. I had no idea how to negotiate. Melting into the shadows seemed like just the ticket. Avoidance made me feel strong.
It can feel very lonely if you never allow yourself to care.
* * *
Almost from the very start, yoga has been able to trick me out of my ambivalence toward authority.
For most of my life, I believed that my refusal to really join with others was a sign of strength. Now, of course, I can see that defiance can also be a great mask for fear.
To me, almost any set of collective standards represents a form of coercion. If you want to play with the group members you’ve got to acknowledge their standards—and once you do, you’ll be using their lens to see how you measure up.
If you don’t measure up, then you fail. And if you do measure up and feel good about it, what about everyone else who doesn’t?
If you don’t want to fall into this type of self-hating quagmire, you simply refuse to join.
My first significant encounter with yoga came in the early 1990s, when I took a class taught by Roberta Schine at her Karate School for Women. “Be a C student,” she used to say, over and over.
I could hardly believe my ears. I was never a C student. Not only was I being given permission to fail, I was being given permission not to try!
The voice of authority was telling me it was just fine to ignore her. I could yield to my limits or my fears or my soreness and still be okay in there.
Yeehaw! From then on, I did everything she said. I loved her, and I adored those classes. Suckered by reverse psychology, or liberated from expectations, I gave the experience my unprecedented all.
That yoga experiment didn’t last long, because Roberta closed her school and went off to teach yoga to cancer survivors, but the legacy of those weeks lives on. For me, yoga remains an arena where it seems possible to obey without having to submit.
* * *
A basic yoga class, I sometimes think, is like a game of Simon Says—but without that malicious trickery! It feels like a safe place to surrender. Basically, I trust these people. It’s pretty clear that the last thing they want is for us to get hurt.
Once I’ve lowered my defenses, it turns out I can actually enjoy taking orders.
When C. says, “raise your arm,” I try. If I fall over, there’s no time to brood—there are more directions coming.
The commands run right through me. I don't think; I obey. We execute a whole sequence of postures on one side and move on to the other.
Sometimes a teacher may send us into a pose with our left leg bent, and later forget to repeat it on the right.
Most often, there’s a student who’ll call out the omission, sometimes to a chorus of mock groans.
Half the time I don’t even remember what we did the first time. I’m not attuned enough to my body to notice the imbalance, and my mind seems completely absent.
For me, the mix of arduousness and precision is often absorbing.
I am, in a strange way, fully in the present of each step. My brain seems to have no record of whatever movement just took place. There is no past and no future.
I wonder sometimes if this isn’t part of what’s so relaxing.
* * *
In the long run, yoga may provide an interesting illustration of a familiar point: that you have to know the rules before you can break them.
I don’t think I’ll always be able to let the teacher function as a surrogate consciousness, no matter how delicious that may feel.
Eventually, it seems, the—er—brownnosing would take a new shape. A devoted student would go home, practice the poses, and absorb the routines into memory.
I imagine with this kind of progress there comes a new level of responsibility: to know yourself and to take care of yourself. If you couldn’t achieve the positions the yoga schools dictate, you might have to adapt the asanas so that they would work for you.
One of the teachers, J., told us that new poses are still being developed; as she remarked, “the book of yoga is not yet closed.”
All of which could in fact make it exciting to absorb the rules. Because you could feel confident you’d never be confined by them.
(What’s scares me still, at least in prospect, is the thought that I might actually become a true convert. I might end up as a vegan ascetic wearing a sheet!)
If practice is supposed to teach you something, I guess what I’m learning is this:
It takes openness and discipline to accept and apply the rules that help—and courage to reject the ones that don’t.
Just as that serenity prayer says, the wisdom must lie in discerning the difference.