I recently started attending hot yoga classes. I thought it would be a good fit for me, a girl who is prone to stagnation and who has a great love of aggressive therapies (think acupuncture and gua sha, not, you know aggression aggressive). I was also a girl in need of movement, stretching, new blood, release. It was a good fit.
In some secret part of my mind, I gave myself an out by thinking I might just lie on my mat during the first class, heat-spent and hiding. But I went to a brand new studio, and I was the only person there, by myself in the hot room on the baked wood floor, sweating through the poses one on one with the teacher. There was nobody to hide behind, no one to distract or block my legs wobbling back at me from the mirror in front of me, tendons popping out around my ankles in balancing poses (a handy review of the muscles of the lower leg, by the way), knees rattling together rather comically in awkward pose. Because there was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, and because I was chock full of reasons for being there, and because the heat was so constant and opening, and because the teacher had only me for a student, I tried. I focused. I attempted to balance, to lock out my knee by lifting my quads, to compress thigh over thigh in eagle pose. I let the ankles wobble. Really, first and foremost, I tried not to fall over. Perhaps more importantly, when I inevitably did fall over, I tried to be OK with myself anyway. A voice in my head repeated through that class, “this is where you are right now.”
I believe firmly in meeting people where they’re at. It’s hardest with myself, but I felt, in the heat, like there was no choice but to try. Wobbling on one foot, the other kicking, kicking, kicking against my hand (toes barely above waist-level, by the way, but meant, in an ideal world, to be visible above my head), I thought, “well, isn’t this just the sweatiest exercise in patience I ever could have imagined?”
It felt good to be patient with myself, good to leave and feel cool breezes on a face flushed with blood that felt new and clean, good to be a little sore the next day, good to have hydrated and sweated and refueled with fresh water. It felt good to lie on my back and feel where the energy was moving and where it was not rather than simply feeling like a stagnant blob (thanks for that, winter). I felt a rush. I felt happy. In my second class, I felt the same way, strong in my body, patient with my stiff muscles and lack of supreme strength and stability. I felt great.
And then, in my third class, about half-way through, a voice in my head said, “I hate this.” I was tipping over too much. Accustomed to old stagnant ways, I felt weak and resentful of the exercise. I didn’t want to lift the arms and lift the legs and bend just past my comfort zone. I wanted to be in a cool room with a warm blanket, ideally nestled into my good friend the couch. I felt grumpy in my standing practice. Down on my mat, lying in savasana getting ready for yet more poses I had started to dread, I decided to listen for a moment to the grumbling in my head, to be an audience for the voice of resistance, and when I tuned in and listened, I was surprised — in the mildest and most effortless way that one can experience a thing like surprise — to find that I didn’t have much of a reaction. I think there’s something about hot yoga — something about the sweating and the lying there and the feeling summery at the end of a long winter — maybe it’s just too hot to care very much. Melted into my mat, I took note of my disinterest in chiming in with the grumpy voice, disinterest in piling on with choice words about how I have too much adipose tissue for my forehead to meet my knees in the rabbit pose that lay ahead (OK, clearly those words came to me now, but it comes out of humor, people — you have to laugh at yourself, right?).
I thought about the idea of resistance training, making muscles by pushing against, the culture I live in where it’s widely accepted that you build the most strength by pushing against. I thought about my own patterns of resistance to healthy changes — bitchiness toward therapists, disinclination to take up new and healthy pursuits. I thought about the way in which that resistance made sense, built up as protection from so many experiences of feeling like I was swimming upstream, needing to make myself stronger to cope. Resistance training for life. Thinking through these things, a little bit languid on my mat, I did something radical: I thought about all of that, looked at my patterns of resistance and the ways in which I have tried in the past to push past even my own armoring, and I thought simply, “huh. Well that’s there.” And I kept going. No big pushing, no big striving, just doing. Stretching, compressing, feeling some discomfort in some poses, sweating, breathing, doing, going.
Maybe this isn’t a time for resistance. The past few months — hell, the last couple of years — have been huge for me in terms of letting go of some old things, unsatisfying patterns and behaviors and struggles — and with that letting go comes more breathing room, new space to hold for myself, to be patient with my weak and wobbly legs, my one creaky knee, my tight hamstrings, extra weight. And it turns out that there’s space, too, for negative thoughts to rise and then effortlessly fall — room to notice something as old and sticky as resistance with something as radical as compassion and then to let it go, to give in to the flow, keep moving, keep breathing, to grow stronger even within that ease.
It feels like a small miracle.