Hard or heart?
- Thoughts at the end of a long year
It’s been a year of changes and challenges for so many of us, and while I’ve been trying to find my footing in a life that has felt quite earthquake prone most of the time, I’ve noticed my tendency to harden. Being continuously pushed way beyond my limit and comfort zone and fighting back to stay standing has taught me to not only say “I got this”, but also to add “So I don’t need you”. Which is a lie.
There’s of course something to be said for growing stronger. I entered 2018 vulnerable to all kinds of hurt. I’m leaving it knowing that I met life’s darker sides with perseverance and hard work and that I survived. But how easy it is to lose your softness when you fight. And life without softness honestly doesn’t feel like much of a victory. Because love will never flow from a hard place. And without love, what’s the point?
While talking about love might seem like a personal matter, I’ve also noticed the difference between hardness and softness in my professional life, where hardness can’t really be considered an asset.
I spent my first many years as a yogi studying alignment and technique. If only I could align my hips just right, if only I could learn the technique of lengthening my spine just so, then I would totally get it, whatever “it” was. But most of the time the study of alignment and technique just made me feel like a machine with the most important parts missing or at least in the wrong places.
Then I started changing my focus on the asanas themselves to transitions between poses and gentle movement in the poses. I discovered the magic of myofascial release and building stable strength and entered into a dialogue with places in my body that no amount of alignment had ever reached before. And my body surrendered with ease, grateful that I was finally listening. But my mind didn’t soften along with my body, at least not completely. I found myself nodding at posts and articles by teachers that I agreed with and shaking my head at old-school alignment and adjustment descriptions. But just because something didn’t work for me, shouldn’t I accept the fact that it might work for someone else? Isn’t it possible for me to like something without trying to convince everyone that I’m right?
What hit me one day as I was planning a module for our advanced training with a colleague who always inspires me was how very quickly we moved away from “Isn’t it crazy that we used to do this? And that some people are still doing it?” to the sheer excitement of the richness of the material that we were going to be sharing with our students.
The beauty of much Eastern philosophy is that unlike the Western love of dichotomies, two different things can be equally good at the same time. Or to put it in slightly simpler terms: I’m just as crazy about the restorative parts of my practice as I am about the strength-building, arm-balancing ones. So even if the traditional approach never really worked for me in a way that felt nourishing and supportive, I can still accept that it might work for someone else and be happy for them.
Based on this, I might also try to attempt to balance my feelings about the commercialization of yoga. The truth is that I never wanted a large chain of yoga studios. The ideal school for me is still the one where I was taught for ten years and the inspiration behind Prana Yoga Shala: A small, simple space with one bathroom, no online check-in and no lounge facilities. Where the study of yoga is everything and where the wellness and exercise aspects might materialize on your mat, but aren’t presented to you through the décor. And while I’m grateful that so many of our students love exactly this about us, of course there’ll be others looking for something else to support their practice. That doesn’t detract anything from either them or us.
One of the biggest challenges for me in the hard-soft department has been the disclosure of abuse and sexual assault in numerous spiritual lineages in general and in ashtanga yoga – my own lineage for about fifteen years - in particular. That anyone with a spiritual practice will ignore, silence and even attack survivors of assault in their lineage is and probably always will be completely beyond me. How a particular practice or even teacher is more important to protect than a person describing their life-shattering hurt is something that in equal parts infuriates and saddens me, just like the gathering reverently around the current head teacher of ashtanga yoga, who has yet to make a public announcement of apology to the students sexually assaulted by their former guru, does. But I’ve also noticed that my being furious changes nothing. All I can do, it seems, is to support the victims of abuse and follow the new movement in yoga that is directed towards community, consent and the end of guru-rule and hopefully help give a positive and welcoming alternative to rigidity and hierarchy.
So at the end of the day and at the end of the year here is what I’ve learned: You might win (or just survive) your battles, but if the hardness that helped you through isn’t released when it’s no longer needed, you’ll never stop fighting. Being soft is not the same as being weak. And accepting that there are many ways of doing things doesn’t make you vulnerable. It enhances your capacity to be kind. None of us will ever get it completely right all the time. None of us will ever be perfect. And while I can honestly say that “I got this” most of the time, I also need you. Those two things don’t cancel each other out.
I’ve had to rearrange so many things, hopes and dreams in my head this past year, things that I used to take for granted, but one thing hasn’t changed: My belief that the only truly important and transformative spiritual practice comes from your ability to love. And love doesn’t flow from a hard place.