You Suck At Sucking At Yoga

A few days ago, after I finished teaching a group class at a gym, one of the last people to leave the room was a woman who had taken my class for the first time. I try to check in with people who are new to my class when I can, just to make sure they feel welcome and that what I'm presenting is making sense. I asked her, "how'd that go for you?" and as she was rolling up her mat she sighed, "I suck at yoga." I admired the efficiency and the boldness of her statement, and of course, it's a funny way to put it. But she wasn't joking; she seemed legitimately distressed at her perception that she wasn't good at the postures. I believe I said something supportive, genial, and rather boring, like "No one sucks at yoga."

I really dislike my response because it positions me squarely in the territory of Blandly & Blindly Optimistic Yoga Teacher, and I do my best to avoid that godforsaken niche. However, in this case, I truly believe that statement, however audacious or absurd it might seem. It is possible to suck at yoga, but such sucking has nothing to do with physical proficiency, which is what I'm pretty sure she meant. Everyone who has tried to practice yoga asana has had the experience of feeling incredibly humbled (and possibly even mildly humiliated) by the postures: they usually require a refined combination of strength, flexibility, and subtle body awareness that hardly any of us have naturally. It is completely expected that we will fail at achieving their precise shape until we've practiced them literally hundreds of times, if ever; Sharath Jois, the current lineage holder of the Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition, has said that it takes the body a thousand attempts before it even understands an asana. That's about three years of daily practice.

Oh Yogi, Be A Good Scientist

I don't think we're capable of practicing asana effectively until we can release the desire to perfect the poses; achievement of the ideal form of the postures is simply a side effect of continuous practice, and if it happens, it will happen gradually without our having to worry about it. When we start to fret about this, and I still do now and then, the effective response is to watch this aimless fretting with a gentle curiosity, like watching a toddler throw a tantrum. I'm very sorry to see you're so upset, I like to say patronizingly to myself.

When I was in Boulder studying with Richard Freeman I was in the company of some incredibly physically gifted practitioners. A handful of them had very competent third-series ashtanga vinyasa practices, which in layman's terms means that they could pick up part-time gigs in Cirque De Soleil if they so desired. In contrast my own practice seemed very stiff and remedial; I probably didn't think, "I suck at yoga," but some similar thought passed through my head several times that month. "I probably shouldn't be teaching yoga" was one insidious variation that I found myself having to sit width.

During one of the afternoon workshops, Richard was detailing kurmasana and supta kurmasana, two of the deepest forward folds that I'm familiar with. They appear late in the primary series, and I need each and every one of those preceding postures to generate enough heat and articulation to get into them. We hadn't done most of those preceding postures, and as we were working on kurmasana I found myself having an I Suck at Yoga moment, too much Tin Man and not enough melted Wicked Witch. Just then, Richard, in one of the countless instances of his extraordinary teaching intuition, reminded us that "you can practice kurmasana perfectly without fully getting into the posture, while you can be fully in the pose and get absolutely nothing out of it."

That's a paraphrase, as I can't remember his exact wording. And it sounds like Yoga Teacher as Mad Hatter, right? Up is down and down is up. But within the context of his teaching, it is actually a very logical point. The primary content of a yoga practice is completely internal; it is not something a teacher can adjust you on, and most often it isn't even something you can articulate clearly. Every time we attempt a posture, we're just offering the body and the mind something to chew on, and our primary interest is in our response to that offering. We're gathering data about the condition of the body, the way the body stores tension, and how exactly we are embodied in this particular moment. And we're doing all this with the neutrality of a good scientist. It is awareness practice, and if "I suck at this" is coming up dominantly, then that is something we listen to. But never, not ever, is that statement a source of truth. It's just one of many thoughts that will pass through the mind, and usually to be filed under the Pretty Dumb Ones section.

How To Suck At Yoga

If you're really intent on sucking at yoga, make the achievement of idealized physical forms your primary intention for practicing. Ignore the sensitivity of your body. Use your time on the mat and your current capacity to perform advanced postures as a vehicle to critique yourself and assess your self-worth. Until you start doing that, I hate to be rude, but you suck at sucking at yoga.