One of the “benefits” of consistent yoga practice is that you begin to know yourself. And I mean, really up close and all personal-like.
It might be that you notice some physical thing you’ve done unconsciously before–such as standing with all the weight on one leg, hip jutted out to the side while you’re standing in the line at the grocery store, or how you sit hunched over your laptop, working for hours without taking a break for posture, pee, water or food.
Recognizing such physical habits is useful and good, because it increases the likelihood that you’ll make adjustments throughout your day so you’re less sore or tired at the end of it. In fact, this is one of the things I help my private therapeutic yoga clients and beginner students pay attention to as part of starting a yoga practice. And it is certainly a practice, because no one is perfect at this, and certainly not right away. It takes time, but eventually our patterns show themselves, we notice them, we can change, and then we feel better.
In yoga we call these patterns samskaras, and I think of them as super-industrial strength habits, or such well-worn paths that it’s almost impossible at first to believe there’s even another road or that we can do things differently.
I put “benefit” in quotes above because, at least for me, what’s more challenging is when I notice more subtle mental and emotional patterns in myself. A week or so ago one of my mental/emotional samskaras showed up in two different situations: enough that I was able to finally see it. And of course I didn’t like it!!
The first was–somewhat ironically–in a course where I’m learning to chant the Yoga Sutras. Before I enrolled in this course, I’d been listening to CDs in my car, and had almost completed all 4 chapters. Still, I don’t know much about why I’m making a particular sound beyond whether the note is low or high; I don’t know what’s a syllable or what letters are long sounds and which are short or aspirated. In this class, our teacher chants the particular Sutra in question and then we each (individually!) have to chant it back to him, and he corrects us.
Fortunately, these classes are recorded. And what I notice when I go back to the recordings is that when I’m live on the class, I don’t seem to actually hear the corrections that are given to me in a way that I understand, process, and integrate them. I’m too focused on making whatever change is being asked of me and “getting it right” in that very moment. When I do that, I have a very hard time remembering the change later, and can’t apply it well to new instances. Hearing him and me on the recorded version, I realize I didn’t take in what was said. It seems to click in my brain in an altogether different way when I have more time and am feeling more at ease.
The second example came to me in a more pronounced way within a few days. I have been trying to learn Spanish for what feels like a really long time, and I struggle a lot with it. I’m fine “studying” on my own. I’ve used all the nice online apps and videos and I have a grammar book that kicks my ass (pardon my language but it’s true) almost every week. Recently I found a lovely woman from Spain (one of my favorite countries!) who tutors people in Spanish, and so I meet her at a coffee shop sometimes on Fridays.
Toward the end of my last lesson, we took a detour to talk about which letters are accented vs. not. “It’s easy,” she said, while quickly saying and illegibly scribbling down three Spanish words I’d never heard before and the rules associated with them. First as a teacher you never want to tell someone that something is easy, because odds are it isn’t easy for them, but anyway…I tried to ignore the category names even though I felt myself being pulled to wondering what they were…and did seem to understand the first rule (even if I couldn’t write/say what the category of words were called. For the curious, they are here.)
When she got to the second rule though, I heard it incorrectly and thus the example she was using didn’t make any sense to me. (In yoga we call this viparyaya–wrong perception.) And instead of assuming my understanding was incorrect, I kept incredulously repeating my incorrect view to her, assuming that she must have said something inconsistent and not realized it. This went on for some time, with me increasingly feeling stupid and hopeless over this “easy” thing, until something happened where I realized my mistake (which was really a stupid mistake). Then everything suddenly became clear. (In yoga we call this pramana–correct perception.) I can’t tell you what happened to make me suddenly “get it”. I think I might have just stopped fighting her!
These two circumstances were not only exhausting but were not pleasant to notice about myself. So what happened? First, I felt overwhelmed. Too much information was coming at me too quickly (especially in the case of the Spanish lesson). I’d felt this before while working in high-tech. We used to call it a “fire-hose” of information. I was tired because my brain couldn’t keep up. I was also frustrated because my brain couldn’t keep up. (Forget about the fact that I’m studying Sanskrit and Spanish on back-to-back days for the moment. 😉 )
Second, I’m too worried about pleasing my teachers. I’m too worried about being right: or more appropriately, about being wrong. This has a lot of ties to my childhood experiences that I won’t go into here, but it’s sufficient to say that it feels dangerous and unsafe for me to be wrong.
Now in the case of the Spanish lesson I can certainly ask my teacher to go slower. In the case of the Sutras class (where I’m on a call with other people), that’s not feasible. And it’s certainly possible that even if I asked my Spanish tutor nicely, she’d forget and go back to teaching the way she teaches. So, the only way I can see to change this is to change ME.
How do I change me? Consistent yoga practice.
This is frustrating and fascinating and motivating all at the same time!