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.
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Ha! Ha! Sounds so familiar!! I’ll never forget the one time I ever heard a yoga teacher yell. She was yelling at me to slow down. We were slowly warming up, in downward dog postion, and we had to pedal our heals to the ground, one by one. I was in some kind of modified mountain climber move head to the highest peak. From the other side of the room I hear “Jenn!!! Slow down, we are just stretching!”. Oh man, I had to hide in the back of the class from there on out.
As a fellow pucker-butt (my fiance has given me that lovely moniker) let me share my previous yoga experience:
I signed up myself and my six year old for mother-daughter yoga classes. My daughter was having dicipline problems at school and I thought yoga would help her learn to calm herself better and give her a needed physical outlet for her energy.
Of course five minutes into the class I was in complete Type-A domination mode trying to outperform all the other mommies. Meanwhile my child would get bored with the poses and start rolling herself up in her yoga mat, meandering around the gym, or chase after a ball that someone had left out. This irked me to no end because it didn’t fit the image I had of my daughter and I – two look-alike radiant yogis flawlessly executing each pose like synchronized swimmers. So I would go chasing after her. First I would implore her to follow along with the class, then beg, then threaten. Yoga usually ended for us twenty minutes after it began, with me dragging a kicking and crying child from the gym and suddenly wishing we didn’t look so much alike so I could at least claim she wasn’t mine.
I think we made it to the third or fourth class before the instructor literally left the class mid-pose, chased me out into the hallway, and in the kindest, softest way only a yoga instructor could pull off, suggested that yoga “wasn’t for us” and offered to refund half of the money I had paid.
I took the money and I haven’t done yoga since. I did, however, sign myself up for adult beginner ballet classes and got my daughter into Tae Kwon Do and swimming lessons (both activities where I can just push her through the door and leave for an hour). We were both much happier with that arrangement.
Love your post Melissa. I can relate and enjoyed a good laugh as I saw myself in your words. The other challenge I have with yoga is being quiet. I want to talk, talk, talk… encourage others, get up in their business and I want them to get up in mine. UGH! I’m learning to be quiet and soften too. Who knew it could be so hard to do?
Haha, it felt 100% as if I wrote it myself! :) “I will kick your ass at yoga. Namaste!” is just epic!
Hate to see you in a Tai Chi class. ;o)
Outstanding post, as always. Honest, authentic, real and real. I’m very happy that you have taken to yoga for the reasons you have. Your message resonates with so many in our modern culture, especially those who train in an intense environment such as a CF gym, Gym Jones etc. While there is much I love about these environments, they too have their shortcomings and they cater to, encourage and reward the driven “Type A”. Yet, without the stillness, at some point the strength/effort will falter. It’s great that you recognize this and are willingly embracing this aspect of “you”. My hope is that your practice not only benefits you but also inspires your students and readers.
Coincidentally, “Strength and Stillness – mental and emotional training to transcend limitations in your practice and daily life”, is the title of my current yoga workshop that I’m am presenting. It’s all about sharing how best to “soften” when necessary and how best to be strong when appropriate and how to take those lessons off the mat and into daily life.
Keep up the good work and don’t go and becoming a vegetarian now ; )
I can totally relate! I love to push myself no matter what I do and of course a little competition is good otherwise what’s the point? Yoga is wonderful and I too have a competitive kick ass streak, but once in the flow of yoga with eyes closed it’s nothing but me to do my best! Such a great therapy for body and mind. Love all things Whole30!!
OMG Melissa just yesterday I was going through my very own Type-A yoga thing. I looked over at my friend, who can relax and “soften” and “let the light within her shine and guide her heart” with the best of them, and all I could think was “ha! I never do this and look at me being awesomer than all you experienced yoginis.” Oh and trying to log the yoga session in my meticulous Excel spreadsheet was hell.
ashley hibbitts says
Yeah!! The Yoga post :) I love it! Wow, sounds like a carbon copy of me. One year in, I really can see a teensy bit of yielding and softening in myself!! Keep it up. Thanks for the constant inspiration!!
So proud of you and this post! :) You know we’ll be sharing it. :) <3 B
This was a great post! How many times a week do you take yoga classes?
great post! this totally resonated with me and hit me dead on. i haven’t been to my yoga class in awhile to work on my practice. this was just the inspiration to go. thanks!
Great post, Melissa.
Have to share these guys if you don’t know about them: http://www.namastemofo.com/
They make t-shirts that say things like “My savasana can kick your savasana’s ass”. And of course the title of their company: “Namaste Mofo”.
Jennifer Conlin says
I don’t even watch the news anymore..I just come to your site because I learn more and laugh more.
I get the shutters simply imagining myself doing yoga. Kudo’s to you Melis for actually doing it !
duh, that is shudders. way to early for this
I was happy to read the closing statement, because most of the post read like a point of pride to be so competitive and unyielding. I too am a very competitive and results-focused person, but regular yoga has been great for me in that it’s made me let go of comparing myself to others (mostly because my studio is full of yoga ninjas that really can kick my ass, namaste, and put my practice to shame).
So keep on with yo’ yoga, girl, and fight the good fight to let gooooo and relaaaax and softennnn.
You touched on something that I truly love about yoga. In order to perform better, you need to actively relax. This can be seen in both strength and flexibility poses. I can hold warrior pose much longer if I just let go a bit and try not to force it. Same goes for things such as pigeon or triangle…relaxing the muscle lets you stretch them farther. It’s a skill that I’ve found very helpful when competing in pretty much any sport. Plus, the extra flexibility certainly helps when cranking out pistols!
I’m a competitive perfectionist too–heavier, harder, faster, stronger, better is how I approach my workouts. But I’m also a yoga student and teacher, so I know what you mean about the difficulty in softening. What helps me, and what I tell my students to do, is go the opposite direction by engaging as actively as you can before softening. Tighten your muscles, scrunch your face up, constrict your throat for a second or two before letting go. The contrast between the two can give you some type of benchmark of how far to go between the two extremes. And softening applies to thought, too. If you think you’re not soft enough and beat yourself up about it, it defeats the purpose. Accept where you are and embrace it, soft or not.
Love the post! It’s hard to find people with a serious foot in both worlds.
Melissa @ Whole9 says
Thanks to all for the comments – it’s nice to see I’m not the only one. Marjorie, I actually practice that technique on a regular basis. I’ve got one of Pavel’s videos (Relax into Stretch – I’m an RKC so I’ve got a LOT of Pavel’s stuff), in which he advocates for muscle tension on the in-breath, and muscle relaxation on the out-breath. I do that in yoga a lot, and it works really well! Thanks for the tip.
Hahahaah! I just tried yoga in a class for the first time (hot yoga) at a globo gym near me. First, they didn’t want to let me in because I was “new” and they “Didn’t want me to get hurt.” WHA??!!! Just let me in. (So they were trying to be careful….but who did they think they were talkng to?!”)
Next, well….everything you just said! I didn’t yell and grunt like I do at CF 10, but the whole time was thinking, “I will f—ing show you that I can hold a twisted squat with my hands all twisted, and my head turned and…..what the….!!!” Although I felt like fainting, I’d think “I will NOT FAINT in this class!!!!” and eventually made it through, feeling totally proud of myself…..
I NEED to lighten up, Francis! When I told my husband how hard it sometimes was he said, “Well, now you know not to go back.” I replied, “Are you kidding?! I’m going to beat them ALL next time! I am going to KICK BUTT!”
Hahahaha. Must lighten up. And I think my face needs to relax, too.
And I totally would wear that t shirt “I will kick your ass at yoga. Namaste.” except I think…umm…maybe I shouldn’t!
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Cate B says
I remember reading this when you first posted it, and I thought of it while I was teaching yoga yesterday morning. There were two very clear “type A’s” in my class, straining and struggling to do “better,” and I even caught some glimpses around the room from them checking other people out. I just smiled to myself, but I really wanted to stop them afterwards and tell them to read this! If they start coming regularly and hang out after for a bit, I might just work that into the conversation =)