“Can we do other asana [yoga poses] besides just upward dog, downward dog all the time?” chirped an older woman right as our instructor had settled us into our first child’s pose in this morning’s yoga class. I’m not very fond of this woman. She is sour and cranky and doesn’t have much respect for other people’s personal space. (She once sandwiched her mat between me and the woman next to me when there was plenty of room around us. I practically had my foot in her face until I moved.) On the surface she seemed to be complaining about the sequence my teacher used every class. It’s a vinyasa style built on the sun salutations A and B sequences, which include a lot of upward and downward dogs. Unlike other teachers I’ve had he rarely varies from his routine and instead challenges us to be present and heighten our awareness of how our bodies feel in the poses.
I wondered what was really driving her question–was it cultural? (She is from another country and doesn’t have sweet-as-pecan-pie genteel southern manners like we do here in Texas. We’ll still stab you in the back, but you’d never know it.) Had something happened earlier that morning to put her in a bad mood? She is rather frail and often struggles to keep up. Was she really just frustrated with her own body’s limitations and was taking out her anger on the teacher? Or was it simply because she had passed gas VERY loudly right just a few seconds earlier and wanted to distract the class with her question lest we erupt into giggles? We did laugh anyway when she asked her question.
“Everybody sit up, I want you to ask the rest of the class and see if they feel the same way,” my teacher barked. No one laughed at that point. I detected a slight amount of irritation in his voice and wondered how he was going to handle the situation. He went on to ask some pointed questions and explain the reasoning behind why he takes us through the same vinyasa sequence every time–to build heat within the body to prepare us to safely move into deeper poses, not to mention that it was a tried and true sequence passed down by the great yoga teachers of India. He said that students are welcomed and encouraged to modify poses for our own physical needs. He made his point without being defensive or ridiculing the old woman, even thanking her for her question, but I could also tell that he was staying firm in his belief in the power of his chosen form of yoga practice. He wasn’t going to throw it all away and go back to the drawing board just because one student complained.
A fellow student remarked that my teacher hadn’t heard from the rest of the class, which seemed to be quite satisfied with his sequence. We nodded in approval. You rarely hear from people who are happy with things as they are. My teacher wrapped up his lecture by reminding us to be present and practice from a place of love and tolerance. I wondered if that was as much a reminder to himself to keep his cool as it was to us to not judge this woman too harshly for disrupting the happy vibe of the morning. He did add some variation, but his main sticking point was reminding us to see if we can be present and go deeper into the poses. The old woman stuck it out through the class, and I noticed that she took more time to modify the poses for her slower pace and her body’s needs. I smiled as I watched her out of the corner of my eye. She seemed more confident and comfortable. Maybe that was all she needed–the green light to make the practice her own. My teacher made sure he paid attention to her just as he did with all the other students. She scurried out as soon as class was over. I wonder if she’ll come back next week.
But here’s the thing–I’d found myself getting bored with that sequence, so maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to cast stones at my crabby classmate. Sure, it’d be fun to try different balance poses or sink into pigeon for an extended time, but I can always do that on my own. Doing the same thing over and over again and actually benefitting from it requires a different mental discipline than always having the luxury (and the shorter attention span) of variety. I challenged myself during that class to try and learn something new from the same old poses, to really feel my body from the inside out and make micro adjustments to help me get more fully into the expression of the pose. If you’re not present and mindful you’re just going through the motions.
Today’s yoga class experience made me reflect on a similar theme in last night’s taekwondo class. Fridays are reserved for technique and forms. This class, which precedes the new adults only class, is open to green belts and up. After some kicking drills my instructor calmly announced that we were going to work on some orange belt (rank above white belt) techniques. For several minutes we performed strikes and blocks that formed the foundation of our forms, one-steps, and to a lesser extent free sparring techniques. Without a strong front stance your balance is compromised. Without a solid low block you can’t deflect a kick from an opponent. Without being present and making the micro-adjustments you can’t fully express the intent of the strike or defensive block. That rings true for a white belt or a black belt. Sound familiar?
The theme continued as we reviewed palgwe sah jang, one of the loveliest and most complicated color belt forms. Although it seemed like Grandmaster was doing this for the benefit of the two little blue tip boys who needed to practice the form for their next belt test, I felt like he was doing it even more for the red and black belts. He intellectualized the form, explaining the why behind the moves and demonstrating intricacies of each strike and block so it would all flow together in a logical sequence.
“Be patient,” Grandmaster chided the two little boys as they fidgeted behind us, but like my yoga teacher, he did not bend to the influence of the complainers. He continued walking us through the sequence, something we’ve done a hundred times before and something that’s built on those old foundational blocks and strikes we learned as lower ranking belts. It’s our taekwondo version of all those old familiar upward dogs and downward dogs. As I did with my yoga practice today I learned something new from a form I’ve practiced for over a year. Both classes gave me a stronger appreciation for the foundations that support all the complicated pretty stuff.
Every once in a while we need to go back to basics. What routine are you doing that needs a refresher? What is something new that you can learn from something old? How can you revisit and strengthen or reconfirm the building blocks (morals, values, beliefs, etc.) that make up your the complexities of who you are?