Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Why being bad at yoga is good for me

I know, I know, the concept of being “bad” at yoga is troubling, since I’m implying that “badness” in yoga means being inflexible. It means when I do a forward bend, I can’t touch my forehead to my knees. It means when I do triangle pose I can’t wrap my fingers around my big toe. And that’s a bad definition of what it means to be “good” at yoga. A much better definition of being “good” at yoga is more along the lines of doing each pose carefully and consciously, no matter where I am in it exactly.

But I’m in class last night, doing that forward bend where your feet are 4 or 5 feet apart, and you're bending forward at the hips, trying to get your head toward the floor, and there’s this woman behind me who can do it perfectly. She looks beautiful, with perfectly straight legs, a perfectly straight back, head on the floor, arms parallel to each other. She could be on the cover of Yoga Journal, and I’m completely distracted by it. I start to feel like I want to be that good – I want to practice and practice until I’m that flexible.

And then, sigh, I realize I just can’t do it. I don’t have time to practice yoga that much, not if I want to be a competitive cyclist at the same time. And I’m not sure my body is cut out to look like those on the cover of Yoga Journal. I’m shortish and squattish, with a tendency to put on big muscles. People call me small, but I think that’s deceptive; if you look closely, you can see I’ve got leg muscles that bulge. They aren’t the long and supple muscles of people who “excel” at yoga.

So I’m forced back into the “good” definition of being “good” at yoga, and I think of all the yoga clichés I hear in class: I should come into my breath, be present in my body, get out of the mind and into the body, let breath lead me into the poses. Being “good” at yoga is a matter of being aware of what’s happening in the poses, not being super bendy.

Being competitive about yoga is all wrong – it’s such a western way of approaching an eastern spiritual tradition, although as I understand it, hatha yoga – the poses – isn’t really a part of contemporary Hinduism and that few people in India practice them. Yoga as I know it is an almost exclusively western manifestation, and the equation of yoga with poses is a very narrow understanding of what yoga really is.

On the other hand, though, I do enjoy a bit of competitiveness. I’m relatively new to my athleticism, having only been a semi-serious cyclist for the last, I don’t know, six years or so. And I love being strong on the bike. I love being stronger than other people, and it’s fun for me to play around with feelings of competitiveness and aggression, since so often I feel like they are off-limits for me as a woman. I’m guessing that other women might not feel so conflicted about competitiveness, having grown up with a stronger culture of female athleticism maybe, and maybe it’s also a personality thing – I can be a bit timid by nature, and so I have a complicated relationship with my aggressive side.

I’ve said things like “women’s races aren’t quite as dangerous as men’s races are because women are a bit more careful about their riding,” and other people have said something about men and testosterone in response, but I don’t know – I don’t have enough experience to know if women are less dangerously aggressive than men. That might not be true at all. I might be buying into a false idea of women as more level-headed and less dare-devilish than men.

All this makes me even more interested in finding writing about women and athleticism, as I wrote about a bit in yesterday’s post about Colette. I asked about women writer/athletes from earlier periods yesterday, but now I realize that I can’t even think of contemporary women who write about athleticism or women writers who are known for being athletic. This inspires me to look around a bit more. Does anyone know of good writing, from any time period, about women and athleticism? I don’t mean historical or sociological studies, I mean more literary explorations of it – whether fiction or nonfiction.

Anyway, being “bad” at yoga makes me think through my feelings of competitiveness, and to try to sort out where I should foster those feelings and where I shouldn’t.

So for now, my ambition for my yoga practice is to have no ambition. And my ambition for cycling is to kick your butt.