by Melissa Hartwig, who sometimes cheats at yoga
In yoga, there are two kinds of positions. The first requires strength to hold the pose. The second requires you to soften and yield.
I suck at softening.
I approach my yoga the same way I approach my deadlifting – with the same Type A, stubborn, controlling personality that suits me oh-so-perfectly to someplace like Gym Jones. And for some poses, that works beautifully. Standing splits against the wall? I don’t look like that girl, but I can tough out the hold with the best of them. Full side plank? Nothing but good, old-fashioned midline stability. Handstands? Please – I’ve done so many, it’s practically cheating. But move me into something where I have to soften – the shoulders, the spine, the face (yes, I’m often told to soften my face) and it all falls apart.
I have no one to blame but myself.
After six years of doing nothing but measure, count, chart progress and mark improvements, I don’t know how to soften. I don’t know how to relax, I cannot “yield” (whatever that means), and I most certainly cannot refrain from trying to kick your ass at yoga. My instructor told me last week to close my eyes when I practice. This was after she caught me looking around, seeing the old guy next to me had his leg higher than mine, grunt (yes, I believe I actually grunted) and forcibly yank my toes up juuuust a smidge higher than his. And then I fell over. (But still, I believe I won that round.)
Measuring, counting, charting and improving are all good things when it comes to fitness. I firmly believe you need the structure of a planned program, the discipline of a log book, and the stats to prove you’ve pushed yourself and exceeded your own expectations. Without those things, fitness progress comes slowly and is often unrecognizable. But for the love of Shiva, I need a break once in a while, if only for my own mental sanity.
I’ve been a perfectionist my whole life. In school, a minus sign next to the “A” on my report card grade was cause for much hand-wringing and dismay. (That was second grade.) In my past career, I stayed longer and worked harder than anyone else – and was promoted faster than anyone else in the history of the company. In the last six years of CrossFit, kettlebells and Gym Jones, my logs were meticulous (I love a good Excel spreadsheet) – cross-referenced and notated within an inch of their life. And the gold stars I gave myself for a new PR were a huge part of what kept me motivated.
I have none of this in yoga.
There are no grades, no promotions, no logs or tracking of progress – and gold stars are explicitly forbidden. It’s just me and my mat and a constant struggle to soften. Nobody cares if my leg is straight, nobody cares if I bent just a smidge lower today than yesterday, and nobody cares how my shoulder muscles look in Warrior 2. Just me. I’m the only one who cares. And because of this, I am constantly challenged in my practice, too often manhandling myself into a position, stepping outside of the moment to worry about my progress, and refusing to yield.
I do yoga for fun. Mostly, I go to calm my constantly tense body and ever-racing brain. I go because my cortisol levels told me I should, and because I’m a calmer, happier, saner version of myself after 90 minutes of moving in flow. It’s more therapy than exercise, although I’m surprised at what good exercise it is.
And despite some intrinsic urge to make my time there more “practical”, I’m not trying to improve my deadlift or squat through yoga (although that wouldn’t surprise me at all). My practice is supposed to be a break from myself – from counting, measuring, charting and most of all, judging. So this morning, I will do my best to soften, yield, relax and let the pose dictate where my body ends up. To be safe, though, I’ll probably close my eyes.