I hate gym teachers. I think they’re evil. And that goes all the way back to Miss Peterson and the President’s Physical Fitness Program. President Kennedy’s Physical Fitness Program.
Miss Peterson, with her beady eyes and Bermuda shorts. Her ridiculously athletic build. And President Kennedy … his own physical difficulties a well-kept secret, that guy was on a mission to shape up his fellow-Americans, especially the young ones. The children are so much easier to push around.
Thanks to President Kennedy’s fitness initiative, there we were on the shiny, maple floor of the Rugen School gym, doing sit-ups and push-ups and the fifty-yard dash. Or in my case, the fifty-yard dawdle. My performance was pitiful.
The worst part of all? That big, fat, hairy rope dangling from the ceiling of the gym. Climb a rope? Me? Sure thing. No matter how much I struggled, I just could not get my feet off the floor.
Miss Peterson mocked me. Clearly, I was not going to be a candidate for that Presidential Physical Fitness badge with the eagle on it. (And she was not going to be a candidate for Teacher of the Year, but that’s another story.)
Well that was a long time ago, but some things don’t change that much. My humiliating failure to shimmy up the damn rope set the tone for lifelong sloth and a deep loathing of exercise. Which lasted for years. Decades, in fact.
And then, way too late, well into middle age (if you stretch the definition of middle) I discovered yoga: the first physical activity I ever really liked. I didn’t like it because I was particularly proficient – I was no more adept at asanas than I was at the President’s Physical Fitness Program. Which is not all that surprising: Boat Pose looks suspiciously like a sit-up, and what is Plank but a stationary push-up?
But there is something different about yoga. It’s communal, not competitive. We practice in a group, and you can feel the energy generated by the others. But each of us is on our own mat, engaging fully in our own practice.
If I can’t do a perfect Pigeon, it’s nobody’s business but mine. It’s not like dropping the ball and ruining the game for the entire team … and then continuing to hear how badly I blew it long after recess is over.
And of course, there’s the inner work. It’s a huge component of yoga practice, even more important than the outward performance of the poses, or asanas. Imagine a physical activity that’s really, on another level, a spiritual activity. Now that’s my kind of exercise.
And what’s not to like about an activity that ends with an official rest period? Sivasana, “Corpse Pose” involves lying on your back on the mat, eyes closed, allowing the whole body (and if you’re lucky the mind too) to let go. After the effort of the asanas, which can be quite intense, the letting go is delicious.
So I started out clumsily, watching my fellow-yogis with awe at their flexibility and strength and grace. Gradually, I grew more flexible too. And stronger. And even (almost) graceful.
It was incremental improvement: bending just a little further, stretching a little longer, deepening each pose a fraction of an inch at a time. And it was very satisfying.
I ran into a roadblock though, when it came to the headstand.
I concluded after many failed attempts that I was too old to do a headstand, or too fat. I didn’t have enough upper body strength. I didn’t have enough core strength. I just wasn’t cut out to do a headstand.
I admired the students who could turn upside down, seemingly without much effort. And I tried – hard – to imitate them. On hands and knees on the mat … then hands clasped on the floor, the forearms making two sides of an equilateral triangle … head goes down, resting in that little nest formed by the hands … feet walk up … back straightens … and legs lift up into the air.
Unless they’re my legs. Time after time, I’d get as far as the set-up. Arms and hands in position, crown of the head on the floor. And then it all fell apart. No matter how much I struggled, I just could not get my feet off the floor.
It wasn’t for lack of effort, no matter what Bob said. Bob was an Iyengar teacher, and he was mean. He actually yelled at me, “You have to try. You have to try.” He was just like Miss Peterson, except his shorts were shorter. Well, and then there were the tattoos.
My experiment with Iyengar-style yoga didn’t last long.
The story doesn’t end here. Even when you think you’re a complete failure, you can always regroup and give it another go, right?
The rest of the story, next week. But first, thanks to Melissa Heisler for inspiring me. Maybe you read my article a few weeks ago about where you find inspiration?
I found mine reading Melissa’s story about her headstand practice. Which reminded me: “Hey, I wrote something like that! But it’s too long…”
Well, word count is the mother of invention. You’ll find the rest of the story in your inbox next week.
In the meantime, I invite you to share your comments and experiences below.