I love a good workout. I walk fast and far. I have a thing for “jab, jab, uppercut” routines at kickboxing. And I plan to resume swimming classes with my friend once she settles in at her new condo.
Yoga, with its promise to improve flexibility and core strength, and bring about weight loss, seemed perfect. The sun salutation I was taught comprised 12 poses, all of which I had no difficulty with. Forward bend, high lunge, downward dog, plank, cobra… getting into each position required little effort, especially after years of (intermittent) sports training.
Reality, unfortunately, bites because nothing is as it appears. Yoga, it turned out, also required a significant shift in my mindset. All that stretching, bending and deep breathing supposedly relieves and releases tension and frustration. But there was one thing it did not manage to quell in me: My competitive streak.
Oh, how I struggled. The years in school I spent playing sports such as basketball, handball, volleyball and tennis had inculcated in me a play-to-win mentality, where form was as crucial as, if not more than, function. Indeed, the outcome was part of the process.
It began when the soles of my feet wouldn’t lay flat on the mat during downward dog. As my yoga instructor cooed in the background to “work with your breath”, my brain went into overdrive. What could have gone wrong? I shifted my legs forward, then backward. I moved my palms forward, then backward. My heels were still off the ground.
I would later discover on Google that various factors, including too-tight glutes, had caused my muscles to shorten, leading to my inability to execute the pose perfectly. But back to class: I did the next most expected thing. I turned my head to the neighbour on my left, and glanced at her heels. Then, I turned to the person on my right, and glanced at her heels. Okay, both had their heels on the ground.
This is not fun. This is not relaxing. This is not good.
I spent the rest of class pondering the problem. I knew it’s got to do with my feet, calves and thighs — they were too short, too thick, too stiff. That my instructor reminding me my body was different from others worsened my insecurities. Yes, I can do with more practice. No, I cannot tolerate being less than my neighbours.
So while my downward-dog heels remained off the ground, my urge to compare intensified. I turned up for class at least a quarter of an hour early, so I could grab a spot right in front of the instructor. The focus I’d honed during sports training became hyperfocus.
If I could get my alignment right, I might discern the crux of the challenge, I reasoned. I wanted to know precisely how many arm-lengths to place each joint from the other; how many breaths a pose should last, and how many degrees to crunch your lower back (never). If yoga were a science, I wanted to understand every precept, learn every formula and master every equation.
On some days, I still stole quick glances at my neighbour to see if her soles were flat on the ground during downward dog. I had to kick the habit after she caught me at it, which might explain why she was never friendly to me.
By the time I was taught the camel, I was in a dimension quite literally of my own. This backbend pose gave my lower back and neck the cramp — I clung to the back of my heels with my short, stubby fingers for dear life — but never stopped me from springing right back up to check out how deep the “auntie” behind me could go into the pose.
My obsessive behaviour wasn’t lost on my instructor, who painstakingly nagged at the whole class: “Don’t look at your neighbour. Focus on yourself.” I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes.
It’s nearly a decade since my first yoga class and maybe two years since I stopped practising it by myself. I returned to it three months ago, urged by a girlfriend who’d recently picked it up. Sometimes, mid-class, I would glance at her from the corner of my eye, trying to see if her bridge was higher than mine. It wasn’t. I began to realise, this might not be good for our friendship in the long run.
So last night, after our last yoga class for the term, I had to gently break the news to her. I don’t have the right mindset for yoga, I admitted sheepishly. She seemed to understand, as she looked at me kindly, and chirped: “Oh, okay.” Friendship is more important than perfecting the warrior pose.
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