Although, on the whole, yoga simply makes me feel really relaxed and happy towards everyone in class, sometimes I’ll actually get angry when I’m practicing. I’ll be attempting to master my breathing and focus when someone does something in class that, quite frankly, pisses me off. For example, one of my fellow practitioners will move their mat to the other side of the room and I’ll assume that they’re avoiding me (‘snooty bitch’, my inner dialog will say). Or maybe someone next to me is breathing too loudly (‘what a show-off’, my thoughts will chime). Or a teacher will spend a little too much time working with a pretty girl (‘creep’, I’ll shamefully think to myself). I’m shocked by my own meanness sometimes and its certainly a little embarrassing and humbling to admit it here for everyone to see.
It may seem strange, but this is the central core of what yoga is for. By focusing on the breath and the movements in the asanas, we’re able to hear the uncharitable chitter-chatter in our minds and attempt in some calm way, to let the thoughts rest, to let them be and maybe even let them go.
This isn’t the scary part: I think I’m a nice person, I’m probably at my most calm, relaxed and honestly considerate when I’m practicing yoga. And then, even there, my thoughts are often capricious, unkind, cruel and even violent. And that’s in a quiet room doing something I love to do. Put me on the freeway, in rush hour traffic, with deadlines nipping at my ankles and the whole world in a rush. Out there, my mind is tumult of chitter-chatter and I mostly don’t even notice.
A couple of weeks ago in class, I was next to an attractive woman and the assistant teacher kept on adjusting her, working with her on poses, and flirting with her, or so it seemed. I thought that this was completely inappropriate and this completely incensed me, I was furious.
Rather than let this particular thought process work its way out calmly, I let it take over my practice. It felt good to be aggressive and to work it out through physicality. I was just angry and it probably showed. My face had a hard, gritted edge to it. I moved through the actions accurately, carefully, with precision and purpose. In its limited way, this felt like a solid ‘fuck you’ to the guy I was fuming at. My inner voice was crowing: ‘Yeah, check this out, see what I can do’.
And, sure as night follows day, I got injured. It was minor, a little pain in the external edge of my wrist. More than enough to slow things down and sober me up. ‘Nothing teaches good alignment like a little inflammation’ as one of my teachers used to say and violent actions lead naturally to trauma, pain and suffering. The thoughts themselves do nothing, the actions are the things that carry consequence.
Aggression, showing off, pursuing sensation for its own sake, or even just assuming that you ‘should’ be able to do certain things in yoga are all great ways of getting injured. The injuries can be valuable too, they serve as a break, a wake-up call for foolishness carried too far. The guy I was so angry at is a great teacher; he has a gentle manner, a kind heart and, get this, he’s married. My immediate, triggered reaction to him was, quite simply, flat wrong.
‘Using yoga’ is simply this: decoupling your actions from your reactions. I used to practice Krav Maga, the Israeli martial art that utterly embodies the antithesis of this idea. I was hanging out with some Krav buddies and we were just cycling around the Marina in LA. Two of us were about to cross a street when a car started barreling towards us. My friend leapt into action, he pedaled forward, muscles straining, speeding out in front of the car and skidded to a stop on the other side with some degree of elegance, grace and power. I joined them after waiting for the car to pass. He grinned at me as I met up with them on the other side.
“Did you see what I did?”, he said triumphantly, “That was Krav Maga!”
“Sure. Did you see what I did?”, I responded, “That was yoga.”