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The Yoga Report

Mantra One: Yoga is Non-Competitive

“I was never very good at following directions,” says Gin, walking between the mats of her Repose Yoga Slow Flow class. “And if you’re having a hard time following my instructions, don’t worry. Trust your body. Rest if you have to.”

For anyone who has competed on the field or court or road, this concept of slow down, enjoy, focus on your body, your spirit, your mind is as foreign as Sanskrit. What about beating the guy next to you, heaving into high gear to charge ahead? To be the best? Or at the very least, to receive the instructor’s approving nod? I’d played team sports in high school – not particularly well but I absorbed enough of the win! win! mantra to later run 10Ks as fast as I could and finish a marathon before the sun set. I played tennis to score and skied fast enough to race my male companions. How could I not notice that my neighbor flowed effortlessly through her sun salutations, her back straight as a roof line, her swan dive as fluid as a dancer’s? How could I not feel discouraged when I misplaced a foot, swayed in the wrong direction, tipped over?

The reason I started yoga in the first place was Gin. Friends for decades, we have shared many of life’s big events – parents’ deaths, children’s births – and minor events – countless potluck dinners and dance parties. When we first met, Gin was a graphic artist in business with her husband. She designed my wedding invitations. I can’t remember when she discovered yoga, only that she became so enamored with the Hindi practice that she left one career to share her new skills and insights with the rest of us. Because I love Gin, her southern drawl, her gentle demeanor, her quick laugh, I showed up for an occasional class when she first started teaching more as a show of support than downward dog drive. Besides, lots of our mutual friends had the same idea and we always followed class with a coffee or glass of Shiraz, a sure way to forget the humiliation on the mat.

I was more of a yoga drop-out than drop-in. We all like to be good at things and I felt mat-challenged. Inadequate compared to the lithe lululemon-clad and their perfect pigeon poses. But then I started shrinking and at 5’2” I couldn’t afford to lose a centimeter. I’d always been a sloucher, which is not recommended for anyone but especially someone who doesn’t have any height to begin with, and I envisioned my future as one of those hunch-backed hags in a Grimms’ fairy tale. I had a choice: find a stretching rack or hit the mat with purpose.

Finally, after attending a class at least once a week, I heard the message that was there all along. This is your practice. Each body is different. Not all poses are possible. Focus lies within, not out.
Well, that’s the theory at least. Honoring that theory is dicey -- especially when teamwork is required. In today’s slow flow class, Gin suggests that we move into Dolphin pose, head down, butt up, feet as close to the bent arms as possible and with a partner try to do an arm stand. Oh no… The woman in front of me turns and nods. She’s small like me but really strong. She can hold a wheel pose for a week. I grimace and offer to spot her. I screw up. Instead of simply holding up one leg, I hoist the first leg and then the second. She’s confused. She’s done this before. Gin arrives, clarifies the instructions, and, poof, up my partner goes, more or less on her own. “Your turn,” she says. But time is up! Saved!

“If you didn’t get a chance,” Gin says to the class, “you can stay after and I’ll work with you.”
Gin has never pushed, never buried me in the bounties yoga offers. Instead, like a wise Buddha, she lets me – and all of her students – find our own path. She’s there if we need her, but it’s up to us to seek her out. And so I swallow my pride, my fear that I just don’t measure up, and ask her help with the Dolphin arm stand. And what do you know? By focusing on my arm position – not my neighbor’s – and with her help, I do it.

But I can’t ignore that little voice. Assisted doesn’t count. Must do one on my own.
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