Vanity. If you read any contemporary pieces about so-called “westernized” yoga, you’ll run into that word several times. It does make sense, but I never really thought about it too much. I’m no stranger to vanity, but it’s one of those things that I just accept, deal with, and move on from, so I can focus on other, bigger things in life. Yesterday, however, I found myself challenged in a way that left me wondering if I’m not a bit more of a vanity junkie than I previously thought.
A bit of history: I grew up hating every physical part of my being. I’m not talking about “teen angst” or puberty or the expected “UGH, I hate my [fill-in-the-blank here].” I’m talking real depression, missed school, begging for a nose job at age 12 (and no, I never did get one), severe eating disorders, and missing out on most of my 20s due to a refusal to leave the house because I felt too absolutely disgusting in my own skin. (I still have days like that, and I’m still not “over it all,” whatever that means.) My first Bikram yoga class, at the age of 23, was excruciating. Not because of the heat, not because of the postures, not because of the teacher excitedly shouting…but because of the mirror. I was supposed to stand with my legs touching (a sensation I still despise, to this day) and watch myself the whole time? Oh, no. No, no, NO.
Over the years, though, I’ve come to depend on that mirror. Like an unsatisfactory, unhealthy relationship, I both love it and hate it, crave it and avoid it. I’m often called upon in certain postures (Eagle, I’m looking at you) to bring my eyes down (I stare up at the reflection of the box heaters where the ceiling meets the wall instead). I look at the floor when I shouldn’t. Some days, I look at myself and repeat under my breath, “pig, pig, pig” as I (hopefully) surreptitiously squeeze the skin on my arm or thigh until it bruises. Then I try to throw that focus into the next posture. It’s all I know how to do, the only way I know how to deal with it and move on. I have friends who refuse to try Bikram with me, again, not because of the heat or the skimpy outfits, but because of the mirrors. And while I disappointedly sigh, I get it. I hate that mirror, too. But I love it. And I need it.
At least, I thought I needed it. Earlier this year, my studio announced that they were offering some informal outdoor classes, for fun and to raise money for charity. I immediately put the down in my datebook. Extra yoga! Extra challenge! Why would I say no? As I got ready for outdoor class yesterday, though, I began wondering exactly what the hell I signed up for. To say that I got into my car begrudgingly is an understatement. As I pulled up to the park, I realized my biggest reservation about the whole thing: I wanted my mirror. I wanted to see myself, to watch. I was suffering from vanity withdrawal.
The lack of mirrors was not the only thing grating at my nerves. The yogis were set up on the grass; for some reason, I was expecting to practice on the concrete, next to the lake and fountains. For those of you who consider me a nature girl…well, don’t be too fooled. In many ways, I am, but grass=bugs and I am just not into bugs. Also, I despise the scent of grass.
Despite all this, I unrolled my mat, thinking to myself, “well, I can leave after this is done and go do a regular class later this afternoon.” I stood on the lumpy ground, looked around, and began. Here’s a breakdown:
Pranayama breathing: I really hope I don’t inhale a bug. If I do, I’m going to hawk it out and I don’t care who hears me.
Half-moon/backbend/hands-to-feet: This thing crawling on my toe looks suspiciously like a tick. *Flick it off.* Okay. Better. Wait, ugh, I smell mud. It smells like tomatoes, gross. Does mud smell like tomatoes, or do tomatoes smell like mud?
Awkward: I am surprisingly balanced on this uneven ground. And not distracted by what is either slight waviness in the mirrors or a totally asymmetrical hip alignment.
Eagle: I HATE YOU, EAGLE POSE. In fact, I am planning a blog post devoted entirely to you.
Standing head-to-knee: No mirror? I will fall. Oh, god, I will wobble and fall. Wait. I’m doing it. My head is on my knee, no mirror at all. I can do this. This means I can compete. I’m DOING IT!!! (Competition post coming soon.)
Standing bow: Pssh. I don’t need no stinkin’ mirrors.
Balancing stick: I see we have an audience. (A man and a little girl are watching.) The audience is growing. Wow, the teacher practicing in front of me is cute from the front and from behind. I realize I have only ever stood in a non-front row during my very first class (as required), and immediately migrated to the front. Hmm.
Separate-leg stretching: Holy crap the storm is coming. The sky is black. The wind starts to blow. It gets chilly. Some people leave. I will get rained on. I will be the last yogi standing! I love storms. I am excited.
Triangle: Oh god, my feet are on the grass and the mud. Oh god. How many tiny dead things am I standing on? Childhood fear of hookworms resurfaces. Wow. My alignment feels good. This is okay. I can do this.
Standing separate leg head-to-knee: Rain is definitely coming. Instructor asks if we want to stay. I am staying. I don’t care if it is only me. Most people stay.
Tree/toe-stand: I want it to pour.
Savasana/transition: Instructor announces that we will move quickly with very short savasanas. I can barely hear. I stare at the sky. Pour, damn it. POUR.
Spine-strengthening series: Light rain on my back. Gross, I smell the mud and grass A LOT. Yuck.
Fixed-firm: We are now doing one set of each posture in an effort to complete the class and still beat the storm. The rain hasn’t really started yet. I hear the birds still singing.
Tortoise/Camel/Rabbit/Spine twist/final stretching: My mind is blank. I have arrived.
Final breathing: I survived. I still don’t like bugs and grass. I’m not sure I’ll do this again. Nope, next time I’ll stick to yoga indoors, and things like hiking outdoors.
I can’t say that the experience lived up to the hype I created in my own mind. It was a far cry from the rooftop vinyasa yoga class I used to attend, one which overlooked a trendy part of the city (and was practiced on concrete–no grass there). I can’t say that I felt like I got out of it what I usually get out of my practice. I missed the mirror, the constant “check” of my progress, the constant reminder that I have improved, but am far from perfect. I missed the structure of class, the feeling that even though my life is changing in big ways, one thing will remain constant. But I did get something different. And that, I’ve decided, is what it was all about.