Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Practice report: The subtle workings of pride, ego and expectations

Whew! The past couple of days have been very hectic. Stayed up till 2 a.m. last night/this morning to finish grading a bunch of papers. Which led to a dilemma this morning: Should I still try to get up early to do my practice, or should I sleep more? I think the reasonable/healthy answer would have been "sleep more". But I'm not always reasonable or even healthy: For better or for worse, I just couldn't stand the thought of having to go about my day without my practice. So I got up at 5:30, did my Buddhist prayers, and started practicing at 7. Yes, I am a crazy-ass type A person this way. 

Since I didn't post yesterday, I'm going to write about both today's and yesterday's practices at the same time, mainly because there were actually more interesting things happening in my mind and body during yesterday's practice, whereas this morning's practice was nice but quite uneventful. On both days, I did full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana. Two "highlights" from yesterday's practice:

(1) I had a space-cadet moment in which I almost went into Supta Kurmasana before doing Kurmasana. After Bhujapidasana, I leapfrogged my feet over my arms and put my left foot behind my head. And then I realized, "Wait, there's something that supposed to come before this... Kurmasana!" I had to "rewind": Moved back to downward dog, leapfrogged my feet over my arms, and got into kurmasana. Hips felt very open yesterday (and today as well). The heels popped up off the ground almost effortlessly. That's probably why I was so anxious to get my feet behind my head :-)

(2) The leg-behind-head postures in second felt easier both yesterday and today, probably because the hips are more open. Don't know why they are more open. Hope they stay this way :-) But I also have been trying to keep in mind both Kino's and Susan's suggestions to broaden across the lower back, so as to create more space for the sacrum to settle more comfortably in these postures, so that the sacrum is not compressed. I think this is coming along quite well.  Thank you Kino and Susan :-)

At some point during yesterday's practice, I also had a mental "click" moment. It's one of those moments where you have a little insight or epiphany about some aspect of your life and yourself. In both middle and high school, my favorite classes were language classes (English and Chinese classes). This is because unlike, say, physics or math, language classes were not "how to" classes where you learnt particular formulas or techniques for doing something. Rather, you learn language in a more discursive, interactive way. I like these classes because they provided me an opportunity to express my views about certain things. I remembered that I was almost always the first one in the class to raise my hand when the teacher asked for our opinions on anything. So much so, that one of my Chinese language teachers once jokingly remarked that if I had been born twenty years earlier, when language teaching was more pedantic and less interactive, I would have been ordered out of the class by the teacher! Traditionally, Chinese language instruction consisted of the teacher reciting particular lines from the Chinese classics, and the students repeating the lines after him or her. By the time I was in middle and high school (in the early 90s), things had changed drastically; by this time, Chinese language teachers had by and large adopted western methods of language teaching, which were more interactive.

It was in these language classes that I cultivated the ability to speak my mind about things, and developed my public speaking abilities. Because I was relatively fearless in speaking my mind compared to my classmates, I usually ended up representing the class in speech competitions and debates. I also was in student government in both middle and high school, which often had not-so-desirable effects on my academic performance (see my January 28th post for more details on this).

What was this to do with my yoga practice? Well, during practice yesterday morning, that Chinese language teacher's remarks inexplicably floated into my consciousness. This happens to me quite a lot in practice: Very often, in the middle of practice, some event that happened long ago or something that somebody said long ago would just pop up in my mind for no apparent reason. Usually, they just emerge momentarily in my mind, and then re-submerge into the uncharted depths of the unconscious. This time, however, this thought sparked a realization: I realized that this desire to speak my mind is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I think it serves a positive function, in that it enabled me to express in words things which would probably have otherwise remained unexpressed. I also humbly hope that by giving expression to this desire, I am able to inspire (or at least entertain) people around me. On the other hand, however, being able to step up to the plate and speak my mind often marks me out in the eyes of others as a "representative", somebody they can look to to represent and advance their interests. This is, of course, a good thing in and of itself. The trouble is that when this happens, I cannot help but feel the expectations that people place on me, and automatically try to rise to the occasion by working very hard to fulfill these expectations. Often, this means that I end up pushing myself in ways that may not be beneficial to me in order to be the "perfect representative", the "ideal student", the "good boy/man."

I have realized that this tendency manifests itself in my asana practice as well. Thinking back, I realized that this tendency was a major contributing factor to my recent SI joint injury. When I was practicing at my teacher's shala back in Milwaukee, I was one of the more "advanced" practitioners asana-wise. Quite a few people came up to me to tell me that I had a beautiful practice, especially towards the end of my time there. This spurred me to push myself harder, to the point where I wasn't listening to my body as closely as I should have, recklessly pushing forward at times when backing off would have been the wiser option. Which is, of course, a recipe for injury. Isn't it interesting how our egos work on us in such insidious ways?

Which is why my intention during practice now is to take everything breath by breath, moment by moment. I still challenge myself a lot (I'm too hard-wired this way not to); but hopefully, I have learnt to see and listen better to where my mind and body are at any given moment in the practice, and to adjust my practice accordingly. And hopefully, this also translates into being more aware of where my mind and body are in my life off the mat.               

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