Sunday, March 14, 2010

Yoga Chronicles: Who's Yer Daddy?

“This practice can handle you.”
—Carla Stangenberg, director, Jaya Yoga Center

As I remember it, those words sounded like a challenge, playful but serious. “You think you’re so tough?” she seemed to be saying, to each of us. “Well, you’ve met your match.”

The phrase has stuck in my mind.

As so often in yoga, the teaching involves a discreet disruption of the conventional perspective. My usual question is whether I can handle yoga, not whether it can handle me.

C. herself once talked of a time when she repeated, like a mantra, “I can’t handle this! I can’t handle this!” Someone finally told her: “You are handling it. You’re just not handling it well.”

What does it mean to turn this idea on its head? To think of being handled—and not even by another person, but by a physical practice?

In a way, yoga is remarkably accommodating. Instructions for the poses, or asanas, are specific, but you’re still in the game if you can’t follow them well. It’s not like baseball; you don’t strike out.

If I’ve got extra energy, I can infuse each asana with vigor. If the effort is too much, I can sink to my knees in a child’s pose and let it all go. Everything counts.

Most days, it’s not my body that’s causing trouble—it’s my thoughts. Like lots of other forms of exercise, yoga has a way of clearing the head.

One day I came to class angry. Directing my ferocity into every lunge and twist, I discovered an unexpected sense of mastery. It made me feel powerful to vent my outrage in postures that also demanded such control. I got so absorbed in the feeling that my fury dropped away. (I was almost disappointed, at the end, to discover I was no longer mad.)

I think that’s one form of handling. Of course, the frustrations of the outside world aren’t the only things that yoga has to contend with.

As C. was perhaps saying, many of us may also, consciously or unconsciously, fight with yoga itself. We resist the demands of the poses, the limits of our bodies, the challenges of the teachers.

As the instructors keep pointing out, the ego gets involved, and that can be grim or it can be funny. Think you can stand on one leg? Splat. Think you can twist your arms into a bind? Yes, but what’s that ripping in my shoulder? Why can’t I do what I want?

You can be as defiant as you like, but still: this practice can handle you.

You can get mad and leave it, but it won’t go away. It doesn’t care if you are young or old; it can vex you either way. It will wait out your laziness, your overexertion, your arrogance, your fear. In between child’s pose and corpse pose, it offers a million ways to stand on your own two feet (and your hands, too).

In this sense, committing to this or any practice may offer all the benefits of believing in god, which I happen not to. (Maybe god is a practice.) I met a woman once who’d been devout all her life, and then her daughter died.

She got angry. She raged at god, she stormed, and she stopped going to church. Eventually she came back. Whatever god she knew was still there, unyielding and forgiving, a perfect friend and adversary for all the epic struggles of her life.

It seems that god and yoga may be handling us in much the same way. Bit by bit, they teach us that we can handle ourselves.