Love at first sight
When I met yoga, it was love at first sight. For someone introverted and shy like me, it was the perfect physical practice: It wasn’t a team effort, there were no mirrors and I got to stay in silence on my mat without having to engage with anyone else for hours. And – almost as importantly – it didn’t involve the throwing and catching of any type of ball.
But that was not the only reason why it felt like a perfect fit. Primarily, it was an almost exact replica of what I had always known love to be. Which, in my case, unfortunately wasn’t a place of “happy ever after”, but a place where I felt completely inadequate and undeserving. In yoga, I kept collapsing in my chaturangas and gave myself blinding headaches when attempting to headstand. And this mirrored my relationships, where I always fell for the type of guy who made me collapse on an emotional level.
In the perfectly polished, So-Me coming-of-age yoga story this is where I should describe how yoga taught me to make better choices. It didn’t. Not for a long time, anyway.
What it did was perfect my patterns of self-harm. In my practice, I made sure that I never felt good enough. I practiced with teachers who would push me far beyond my comfort zone. Teachers who didn’t encourage or praise me, when I finally managed to do something right, but just shrugged, told me to watch my ego and gave me something new that I couldn’t do. But while I always felt less than content on my mat, at least I felt safe. Because fighting for even the smallest morsel of approval was a feeling so well-known to me that it was oddly comforting to find it in my new hobby, so even if it wasn’t a happy one, yoga definitely felt like a homecoming.
If I thought my story was unique, I probably wouldn’t be sharing it. And while I have many friends and students whose journeys into yoga have been unproblematic and healthy, I have spent enough time in shalas around the world to notice how using yoga to perpetuate a pattern of a negative self-image is not all that uncommon, and something that we need to be aware of, especially if we teach. As stories of abuse by teachers or so-called gurus are being told in the era of #metoo, how this abuse to a certain extent shaped the practices that they created also has to be discussed.
I experienced this first-hand when I went on a yoga retreat in India, about a year into my practice. During a recent conversation about my early days as a yogi, memories from this period came flooding back with a strength that almost knocked me over.
We were a tribe of young Europeans who had travelled to the very south of India to get up every morning long before dawn to let our bodies get pushed to breaking point for hours. We all had different areas that caused us trouble, but severe knee- and shoulder pain was common, and in my case my thoracic spine refused to extend, causing my lumbar spine to bear the brunt of what I insisted on making it do.
I remember mornings where my back hurt so badly that I could hardly get out of bed. But less than two hours later, I would drop from standing in tadasana back into a backbend and once I was in it, a teacher would try to pull my hands to my ankles while I tried my best not to pass out from the pain. Less than a minute after this, I would sit in paschimottanasana – a deep forward bend - while one of the teachers placed their entire body weight on top of my back to push me further into a forward fold while pulling at my feet and telling me that I wasn’t breathing correctly because I wasn’t properly relaxed.
Today, knowing what I know now, I’m pretty sure that my inability to breathe “correctly” was probably my “fight or flight” response telling me to get the hell out of there.
But it wasn’t just what was going on during practice that was questionable.
Most of us were very young, vulnerable and struggling through things that might have made visits to a therapist seem like a better idea than the physical punishments that we’d decided to have administered to our bodies on a daily basis. Eating disorders were the rule rather than the exception. But this, to the best of my knowledge, was never discussed. Being really skinny actually made the practice easier, because if you have very little body fat, being pulled into something like garbha pindasana (where your arms go through your legs that are folded into padmasana) is so much easier. And who needs a regular period anyway, let alone nourishment, if you just have enough prana, right?
The intensity in the shala was quite extreme, what with all the naked, sweaty skin, physical pain, raw emotions and hearts being forced open in deep backbends. And while the circumstances where far from perfect when it came to starting up new relationships, of course some of us did. The intensity from the yoga easily carried over into our private spheres, and soon it wasn’t just the practice breaking us down. Whatever stuff we were going through, we got to take out on the person we connected with, and while some of these relationships were blessedly short lived, my own which was every bit as dysfunctional as my yoga love story at this point lasted for more than one stormy year and did the same to my emotional health that the forced backbends did to my spine.
While we can blame teachers for bad hands-on adjustments, of course we can’t blame them for our bad relationship choices. But one thing this experience taught me is how we as teachers can be aware of what kind of an environment we create, and how we go about teaching the kind of students who come to us. Is the environment healthy or potentially harmful? Do we even care?
On this retreat, apart from the pushing and pulling in the mornings, the teachers were more or less absent. Occasionally, they would float by on a cloud of mystique, but for the most part we were left on our own to deal with whatever came up.
The only advice I remember being given were during the weekly public announcements where we were advised to pay in dollars rather than in rupees. I was never asked about my well-being, which was honestly less than great, but I was asked to carry a substantial amount of cash with me on my way back home to Europe through the Middle East. I politely declined.
There was also that one time when we talked about injuries. It happened at a public talk with the main teacher. A talk that had to be paid for separately (and preferably in dollars, of course) on top of the already pricey weekly fee. The talk went something like this: “Are any of you in pain?” the teacher asked. We all raised our hands. The teacher laughed. Then he started demonstrating jump-throughs.
Pain wasn’t optional, was the message. If you weren’t in pain, you weren’t doing it right.
Revisiting this part of my life, I have no doubt that running away from the situation would have been the healthy thing to do. Only I didn’t. I went even deeper.
But a couple of years after the Indian retreat and after resurfacing from the relationship that it had resulted in, something finally dawned on me, right in the middle of a led class. No matter how hard I pushed myself, no matter how much I hurt, no one was ever going to love me because of this, I realized. And even if they did, it wasn’t a love worth having.
I started turning my attention towards meditation and the slow process of healing began. I was fortunate to meet a teacher whose wisdom resonated with me, especially his description of the pathless path of love of the Bhagavad Gita, and how not even the most perfectly correct practice can ever be stronger than the pure practice of simply loving. Of truly looking into the eyes of the person that you love. And sometimes letting the eyes that you look into be your own. I was finally presented with compassion as a way to practice, a compassion so all-consuming that it also included compassion towards myself.
Of course I fell into the trap of wanting to be around my teacher all the time, of thinking that he was the only reason why things were finally making sense. But on the few occasions that I told him that I couldn’t possibly practice without having him around, he just smiled kindly, told me that I shouldn’t worry too much about it and walked away. Helping me realise that my practice is mine, and that I get to decide if I want it to be a place of contentment or torment. If I want it to make me feel inadequate or vibrantly alive.
But isn’t the point of all this that the suffering during my first years of yoga where I was repeating painful patterns from my life up until then made me stronger and taught me some valuable lessons? Or is the insistence of valuable lesson learning something we use when we need to ignore the fact that life can just be really awful sometimes and that the universe doesn’t always have our backs? I honestly don’t know. But I have to admit that I’m leaning towards the latter. Which means that if the universe doesn’t have our backs, we need to have each other’s. Which again means that if we teach yoga we have to at least try to understand how me might help our students choose contentment over torment. We have to care.
I often imagine how all the stories inscribed on our bodies throughout our lives are written in invisible ink all over us. Not just the places where we’ve been kissed with love, but maybe especially the places that feel ugly and wrong because of harsh words spoken or hard, unkind touching.
Our job as yoga teachers is not to add further negativity to these stories, but rather to teach our students how to start reading them so that the hurtful ones can be rewritten with love and, possibly, a little bit of glittery ink. My own rewriting didn’t start until I began to meet my body with kindness. And that process didn’t start until I met someone who taught me that compassion starts with me.
And while I’m sure that my first teacher in India didn’t have an agenda to harm, but just did what he’d been taught by his own teacher, it still didn’t make his complete lack of care and understanding on so many levels right. And if his approach arose from a particular system, then that system needs to change.
So if you’re ever in doubt about the place that your journey with yoga has taken you to, ask yourself this question: If the most direct route to a deep experience of yoga goes through your heart, through love, as the Bhagavad Gita claims in certain passages, is studying with someone who doesn’t take your pain – physical as well as emotional – as seriously as the system he or she teaches really going to be able to teach you anything of value? Do you want to go through suffering and hopefully come out on the other side and describe how that journey made you stronger? Or do you want to try the gentle approach right away? The approach where no one laughs at your pain, but instead asks: “Will you let me teach you how to listen to yourself with kindness? Will you let me support you while you rewrite your stories?”
Join Ann-Charlotte or one of Prana Yoga Shala's other teachers for regular weekly classes at Magstræde 10 C in Copenhagen. We're a yoga community without gurus.