Bad Yoga / by Sophie Johnson

Yoga is one of those culturally appropriative things that I can't really resist. Even though all the yoga classes I have ever taken are made up of students who look like they just walked out of a Kappa Kappa Delta yearbook photo, I like the breathing and the stretching and the slowing down of everything.

This week, I've been trying to take better care of myself, mainly by practicing Eastern traditions co-oped by Western white women with lots of body hair. In other words, I've been sitting in silence a lot just to "be with myself." I've been practicing self-love. I've been eating raw foods and eliminating alcohol and going to bed early. I am really just a stone's throw away from printing out poetry about dream-catchers in Papyrus font on recycled-and-organic rainbow stationary. 

So I was trying to get up the courage to go to yoga. I am always afraid to start new routines, because they are a disruption to the status quo. New routines are significantly easier when they require no contact with the outside world. Journaling, for example, or experimenting with quinoa are not so terrifying. Yoga felt scary because I'd have to see all these other people who already did yoga, and they'd inevitably look at me and silently judge me for wearing bicycle shorts and cat T-shirt to yoga class, and they'd be unsurprised when my legs got shaky in downward dog. They'd say, "What was that new girl doing in class? I know the Buddha says to love everyone, but it's hard when people come to yoga so clearly unprepared to do yoga."

But I told myself that it didn't really matter who judged me, and that I wanted to reconnect to my physicality, and that historically, yoga has been a really good way for me to do that. So I gathered all the courage I had and went to this 9:00 class near my house.

There were a lot of people in the class. It's amazing how many people have enough money to go to yoga but don't seem to have to be at work on 9 a.m. on a Thursday morning. I'm not judging -- I was one of them yesterday. 

The people were bending and stretching and smiling and drinking matcha out of jars. No surprises there. There was one girl at the front -- presumably an intern -- who was flitting around looking beachy and just-a-little-unkempt-but-in-a-hot-Urban-Outfitters-kind-of-way. She was wearing a shirt that said "Everything Is Going To Be Amazing." Something about her shirt bothered me, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

Then the yoga teacher emerged. She had the kind of energy people describe as "fiery." She sat in the front of the room and talked to everyone about how everything bad can be flipped. She was basically talking about silver lining, although she didn't call it that. She said that whenever something bad happens, you just have to change your lens on it to see how it can actually be delightful. Then she quoted Yoda and said, "You must train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose." I did not really understand what that had to do with anything else she was saying. But I like Yoda. I let it slide.

We started moving, and immediately the class was way more intense than any other yoga class I'd ever been to. We did sun salutations the way people ordinarily do jumping jacks -- fast. I am used to focusing on my breath and holding poses until I know I have them right. I have terrible balance, so basically everything in yoga is a challenge for me, but I kind of like that about it. This, however, I did not like. I looked like a 90-year-old woman trying to do the Dougie.

After ten minutes of jumping around through poses I am used to holding for a long time, the instructor told us to start trying to get into handstand by "just jumping until you get there." She kept saying that if it was too hard you should try harder, and then she'd quote Yoda again. She said if it felt bad, work at it until it felt good. This made me want to cry. I got into child's pose and tried to say nice things to myself in my head. The instructor said, "I am so proud of those of you who are at least TRYING." 

This went on for an hour. The class involved a lot of trying to get upside down in ways I believed to be relatively unsafe. Every time it was hard, the instructor quoted Yoda. I don't know Yoda, so I can't be in his brain (also, he is fictional), but I don't think that when he said that "you must train yourself to let go of all you fear to lose" he did not mean that you should try things that feel physically uncomfortable and unsafe over and over again. The instructor offered no modifications, and had no caveats about every body being different. I felt all the hippie-dippy self-love I'd been cultivating over the past week begin to dissipate. Then I realized what was the matter with the intern's shirt.

Everything is not necessarily going to be amazing. Sometimes things aren't. Sometimes you are sad, or scared, or not in a place to do a handstand. In our culture, we try to erase everything that isn't amazing, or hide it behind a curtain. We try to convince ourselves that if we fake it for long enough, we can flip everything bad upside down and make it good. As though the good stuff is all that there should be. 

We need to learn to be okay with emotions that don't feel good. We have to be able to sit with sadness or fear or anger and acknowledge that it is real and that it has a right to be there. Punishing ourselves into working harder to appear happy, capable, and strong does not make a more happy, capable, or strong world. It just makes a world full of people who secretly think themselves inadequate.

If I don't feel like trying to kick up into a handstand, that doesn't mean I have failed at yoga. It means that right now, I am not ready to try to kick up into a handstand. Just making the choice to explore the simultaneous limitations and limitlessnesses of my body is enough. Even if I just lay there in child's pose for the entire class, that would have been enough. 

We have to stop telling people who are going through difficult times to "flip them" upside down and see the silver lining. You are allowed to be sad. You are allowed to be afraid. After all, the dark side doesn't go away when we focus only on the light. Did Star Wars teach this yoga teacher nothing?