This is a blog about yoga.
It is also about failure.
Learning to enjoy things you’re bad at.
And finally, this is about love: A love story.
Just not the kind you expect.
I remember, clear as day, the moment I was called to a yoga mat. I was 24.
It was a Friday. The North End. The Beacon Hill Athletic Club. A cardio class was finishing up in the main studio. Outside a group of yogis patiently awaited their turn in the studio.
He sat tall, legs spread wide in a split. Class hadn’t even begun and yet here he was: effortlessly unfolded.
He looked happy.
I turned- took in the rest of Men in the gym. The runners were mercilessly hammering away on their treadmills; the lifters were sweating and grunting their way through their last reps.
And then there was this guy. Serene. Flexible. Calm. He was levitating a few inches off the floor.
I could be embellishing.
At first glance you’d think that the runners and lifters were the ones doing something difficult; I’d argue that anyone can hop on a treadmill and work up a sweat, anyone can grunt and push through some resistance training sets.
Sitting upright, fully relaxed and happy in the moment; one does not come by that level of effortlessness effortlessly.
He caught me staring.
‘How long did it take you to sit like that?’ I asked.
He shook his head at the mention of luck. ‘I had a hard time touching my toes when I started.’
I waited until he had entered his yoga class before I attempted to touch my toes. I could. Just barely. That Friday I took my first yoga class.
What do you think strength is? Is it the typical male definition of strength (bench and squat #’s)? Or can it be something else?
What is movement?
Strength, to me, is the ability to move your body gracefully (the right amount of movement at the right time) through any position you desire. Movement is freedom.
My first yoga class taught me that I was not strong, graceful or free. I could run fast in a straight line and push heavy weights in a single plain of motion but when it came to moving my own body through space I was limited.
How can I describe the agony of those first few classes but to say my body was at war. With itself.
‘Breath, Relax,’ the instructor would say when my shoulders would knot in downward facing dog.
‘My breath has nothing to do with my shoulders,’ I would mutter. Grrrrr.
‘Use your block,’ she would say when my reach exceeded my grasp. But using the block, to me, was cheating. My ego wouldn’t allow for training wheels.
I wanted to, but my body stubbornly refused. Every time I reached for a deeper pose or bind my body would get in it’s own way. ‘You haven’t earned that yet.’
We’d finish the class in a seated cross legged position. We’d raise our hands in prayer, cover our third eye and bow.
‘Namaste,’ the teacher would say.
‘Namaste,’ the class would reply. I stayed silent. The sanskrit names for the poses, the spirituality just weren’t authentic to me.
My ego was damaged in those first classes. I’m an athlete; an athlete wrapped up in a traditional Male definition of strength. Guys who did yoga wore their hair in man buns and didn’t know who Tom Brady was. Give me a month or two and I’d be just as good as these dudes.
I succesfully gritted or pushed through every athletic challenge to that point in my life. I thought the same strategy would work here. I attempted to strain my way deeper into yoga. I held my breath, pushed myself deeper and found out the hard way that yoga is a finesse game. To go deeper you have to relax more, try less.
I sucked at yoga, to put it mildly. Why did I persist?
Savasana: corpse pose. You lie down on your back for a few minutes at the end of class. This was the moment: the moment the war ended. I felt my brain plunge into my subconscious; my body plunge down into the mat.
No matter how brutal the battle, when I laid down in the end it all seemed worth it. I felt happy. Like I was levitating. I could let go of my ego long enough for the bliss to take over.
This was what that guy outside of that North End class felt. I was sure of it.
‘I love this,’ a voice in my head said.
I told you at the outset that this is a love story. And no, I didn’t fall for yoga right away. Sorry. I ain’t that easy. I fell for Jessica Adams. Or she fell. Into me. Let me explain.
A few times in my life I have seen a member of the opposite sex and just known. Known what? I don’t know exactly. Just that I’m gonna cross paths with this one. It may have happened a half a dozen times in life, but here I am 39 and single.
It was immediately following one of these epic yoga battles that I was entering Park st. station. I was standing on the top step looking down; She on the bottom step looking up. I just knew. Something.
I lived in Brighton. I usually took the B or the C line from Park street to home. I cooooould take the D line home, but it added about a half mile (uphill) to my commute.
Of course she boarded a D line train, and of course I jumped on right behind her. ‘What the hell?’ Would a half mile uphill walk have stopped Romeo? William Darcy? Johnny from Dirty Dancing?
She was a heartbreaker close up. I debated ways I could talk to her but the car was crowded, loud, and I couldn’t summon the nerve. We pulled into Copley. More and more passengers crowded into the car. She was pressed right next to me. We made awkward eye contact, exchanged nervous smiles and then the car stopped.
Screeeeeeched to a halt. It was carnage. People got laid out.
And I shit you not, not only did I keep my feet, but I caught her in my arms.
‘Nice to meet you. I’m Steve.’
You meet someone like that and you’re supposed to sail off into old age together, right?
We had nothing in common. And she was late. For everything. Drove me NUTS.
I should also mention that I, being 24 years old, was not the most mature Cat you’ve ever met. At least I was on time.
I think we were so enamored with how we met that we overlooked that we had zero chemistry. So we went out three or four times more than we should have. And then (mercifully) Jessica cancelled a Friday date about an hour before we were to meet. I can’t remember what I got up to that night, just that when the clock struck midnight I was circling my apartment building searching for a parking spot when who did I see walking with some dude down myyyy street.
Again, I underline that it was a Friday; hours after one my yoga wars. I was sore. My head jerked right. Quickly. Not to see her (I knew what she looked like) but to see the guy she ditched me for (and compare myself).
My neck and shoulders were sore; I moved too fast; I was suddenly pissed off. Craaaack.
I sprained my neck. Parallel parking was a breeze that night.
That was the end of Jessica and Steve.
I blamed my stiff neck on my yoga wars. So that was the end of yoga too.
For a while.
Yeah… this ain’t that kind of love story.
Think about the effect that beautiful movement has on you.
The average person spends hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars a year celebrating movement; through sports, dance, movies. At a cellular level our fandom is born out of appreciation for movement. It has an effect.
How is your movement?
The good news is you can always improve. And it’s simple.
But to improve you’ve got to change up. Leave your comfort zone. You’ve got to do something different not once, not twice, but nearly…
Every. Damn. Day.
And let’s get it out there: when you leave your comfort zone you’re going to fail.
You’re going to suck.
You’re going to get your ass kicked.
Because that is what learning looks like.
When you were young and learning to walk you stood up, walked a few steps, crashed, got back up, tried again. I assume the process worked for you; you’re running now.
The brilliant thing about Children is they don’t have the capacity to take failure personally. Yet. Their frustration is evident, but they can’t assign greater meaning to their failure. It allows them to be dogged.
Failure is the foundation of improvement. When you work out you are literally tearing your muscles down; purposefully weakening yourself, pushing your muscles to the point where you can no longer do another rep, another interval, another step, so that your body can assess the imposed demand and adapt to accommodate it.
Progressive overload. And then rebuild. Failure is data. What you do to acquire that data gives you a spine.
Failure (with intention) allows for one of life’s great pleasures: looking back and seeing how far you’ve come.
What if I adopted this attitude towards yoga? What if I subverted my ego? Allowed myself to fail? Released myself from any expectations?
In her book ‘Mindset’ (reviewed by yours truly here) Carol Dweck argues there are two different mindsets: Fixed and Growth. A fixed mindset thinks that talent and ability are fixed – unchangeable. A mistake means you are flawed. So a fixed mindset person goes through life avoiding failure, avoiding challenge. A growth mindset Person sees themselves as a work in progress. They believe they are continually enhancing their intelligence, abilities and competence through effort and practice. They view challenges as learning opportunities.
‘Am I able to improve at yoga, or am I doomed to forever be tight and immobile?’
A fixed mindset told me that I was a runner, doomed to a lifetime of tight calves, hamstrings; sore knees and feet. I would never be flexible. I’d never be good at yoga.
7 years passed.
I was in pain. 20 years of running and a job that required countless hours on my feet had taken a toll. I was still mercilessly hammering away miles along the Charles River; still sweating and grunting my way through last reps and sets. It hurt to walk down stairs at the start of my day. It hurt more to walk up them at the end of the day. An occasional 5 minutes of stretching and some foam rolling wasn’t enough.
My movement was far from graceful; far from beautiful.
Something had to change. My feet and knees ached constantly. A fixed mindset lead me here. I was ready to believe in something else.
I still thought about that guy sitting outside of the yoga room in the North End. I wanted to move like him. I wanted to be calm and centered. I was ready to embrace some aspects of yoga, just not the ones I considered flaky.
How many times had I encouraged clients to step out of their comfort zones and lift, or run a 5k; Embrace things they were ‘bad’ at to serve a larger goal? You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy it, right? I needed yoga. I’d be a hypocrite if I avoided it.
This time I was going to be persistent. I would not take failure personally.
I would not take the D line under any circumstance.
Growth mindset: I am a rough draft. A work in progress. I can improve. I started practicing 3 x’s a week. 2 vinyasa classes and a weekend restorative class. I began classes the day after Xmas. I committed. I still wouldn’t chant ‘Om’ at the start of practice, but once in a while, at the end of class, I’d bow my head and say,
I was coming around. Slowly.
Expectations are the enemy of progress. My first attempt at yoga was thwarted partially by Dear Jessica (cut to me rubbing my neck), but mostly because expectations I placed on my improvement were unrealistic. I was 24, expecting to unravel 24 years of tightness and limited range of motion with 1 hour a week of purposeful movement. I don’t care how gifted an athlete you are you will not get results that way.
This time I aimed lower, committed more.
‘Breathe,’ the instructor would say while I was in downward dog. I gave up fighting the instructor. I exhaled, felt the tension leave my body. Catharsis.
‘Relax,’ she would say when I would furrow my brow in a deep twist or a bend. I let go of the tension. I moved deeper.
‘Life isn’t about the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at what is inessential.’ Bruce Lee
‘Flow,’ she would say. It is one thing to behold beautiful movement, and quite another to embody it… If only for a sequence or a pose. It may change your life.
You feel transcendent.
I was 31. The age where things start to get taken away. My hairline had receded a little. I couldn’t recover from difficult workouts as quickly as I once could, and yet here was something physical that I was improving at. I was feeling younger and stronger.
I accepted what I couldn’t do, but still persisted. My hips loosened. The pain in my knees and feet left.
‘Use your block,’ my instructor would suggest. I let go of my ego. I obliged.
I was perfectly happy being bad at yoga. I even improved.
But I didn’t commit fully. I didn’t want to be that guy. I didn’t chant ‘Om’. Sanskrit and alternate nostril breathing were still bullshit.
And you know the old saying, ‘women ruin everything’. Well, I fell in love again. For real this time.
Nope, it still ain’t that kind of love story.
I spent more and more time with this woman and less and less time on my yoga mat.
I blew off my Weds afternoon class because I was tired from a Tuesday night date.
I blew off my Saturday restorative to sleep in and then go out for brunch.
I got ‘too busy’ at work.
‘You can’t blame a man for following his dick. It’s like blaming a compass for pointing north.’ – Robert Towne
I’d come a long way. I didn’t throw it all away, but I did get cocky. I didn’t give the same attention to my mat. My practice suffered. My body suffered. I could still touch my toes, but that transcendent feeling you get from beautiful movement comes at a price. I was no longer committed enough to pay. I went back to feeling ordinary. That familiar pain seeped back into my knees.
Another two years passed.
‘I’m thinking of becoming a yoga instructor,’ I told my father over the phone one night. I braced myself for some joke. None came.
Why would I expect my Dad to joke about me becoming a yoga instructor? Well, just in case you have never been to yoga it is dominated by women. Fit women wearing lulu lemon pants with rolled up yoga mats slung over their shoulders. I have taught well over a thousand yoga classes in my life. I’d say over 90% of my students have been of the fairer sex.
And there is a stigma around your typical male who takes yoga seriously. I hinted at it earlier. Honestly, the stigma kept me from fully committing, but you know who’s feet and knees probably didn’t hurt? North End guy.
No laughter from Dad. I continued.
‘Yeah, you know when I did a ton of yoga a couple years ago I felt amazing. I think it’ll be a value add for my clients and, you know, who the hell ever thought I’d become a yoga instructor, right?’
That one found it’s mark. He laughed.
Seriously. Who would have thought?
I had flirted with getting serious about yoga. I started taking classes again but, realistically, classes are offered during the same hours I make my living. So I bought a couple of yoga DVD’s and relocated my practice to the living room.
That’s the great thing about yoga (and running): you can do it anywhere.
I had regained some of my previous yoga strength and range of motion. When my clients would ask me how to stretch their hips/hamstrings I would show them a yoga pose.
‘You should teach this,’ they’d say.
‘Huh?’ I’m the worst one in class. I’m the guy who needs the most help. I wake up in the morning with knees and feet so cranky I feel like I’m 90 years old. How could I possibly teach anyone to do something I’m not good at?
A lightbulb goes off.
‘Because you’re the worst, and if you succeed then you can inspire more than someone who came by this effortlessly.’ The voice in my head; the same one that loves savasana.
I had to teach now. Precisely because I was the worst. I could be the MOST AUTHENTIC TEACHER. Much like the nutritionist who lost a ton of weight.
‘I was once tight and inflexible like you. Now? I’m living proof that this works.’ The genuine article.
I did a google search for Teacher Trainings in Boston and hit on ‘Health Yoga Life’ (check the links if your’e interested). A yoga studio located on Temple street. Sounds legit. They were offering their first 200 hour teacher training course in Beacon Hill. I dropped in for a class. A HEATED class.
As if yoga wasn’t hard enough let’s up the degree of difficulty by adding temperature. And sweat. Lots of sweat. I sweated so much during that first class (taught by the amazing Sara Packard) that at one point, looking down on my mat underneath me, I could see my reflection staring back at me from a pool of my own sweat.
But as I left the mat my hips no longer hurt.
My knees felt fine.
My feet were relaxed.
I went into the office and signed up.
‘That was great,’ I said to Siga Bielkus, one of the studio owners (one of my first teachers), ‘but the heat…’
‘It’s hard at first, but you’ll come to crave it.’
Imagine an icicle melting in your gut. Every time a drop of liquid water slides off the cube you feel a jolt of adrenaline surge through your body. This is the pre race feeling for me. When I was young I hated it. It made me uncomfortable. Now it reminds me I’m alive. Only problem was, I wasn’t racing today. I was starting teacher training.
8 weekends. 24 hours every weekend. I was immersing myself in yoga, something I was never that great at. I heard a great quote from Wayne Dyer during the writing of this blog: ‘Courage is being curious about the things that scare you.’
‘Someone with less talent has done this; and thrived.’ This is what I repeat to myself when I get in over my head. And boy… was I in over my head.
I had three teachers: Sisters Aida, Vyda and Siga Bielkus. I had 7 classmates. This was basically my family for the next few months.
The first weekend of teacher training was war. I was at war with the HEAT (95+), with fatigue (4 hour plus classes in 48 hours), with my body (still one of the worst in the room) and with my ego. I was insecure. I constantly compared myself, my ability, to my classmates, wanting desperately not to be the worst in the room.
‘Who would ever take a class from me?’
Everyone will; if you’re the genuine article.
That winter I did a lot of yoga. It was far from easy. Mandatory 3 hours of practice during the week, another 5.5 on teacher training weekends. Then practicing as we learned the sequences. The more I practiced the easier the war got. The heat opened me (yes Siga- I even craved it). Practicing through fatigue made me invincible. I leaned on my growth mindset. I used my block. I breathed. I stopped comparing myself to other students in the room and focused inward. What can I do to improve?
‘The cost of your new self is letting go of your old self.’ I’m a guy. I love yoga. I may even love the spiritual/intellectual side of it.
I woke up every morning with no pain in my feet or knees.
I may not have realized it at the time but I was in search of a unique human experience: an adventure that would bring something out of me that I hadn’t known was there. Aren’t we all? I had trained for marathons- but I was already a runner. It hadn’t changed me. I did outward bound for a week- it didn’t change me. I searched in countless other places before I finally found it. Yoga teacher training. No matter how good/bad you are at yoga if you commit it will bring something out of you that you didn’t know was there. It transformed me. Physically. Mentally. Spiritually.
Health Yoga Life is a magical place for me. Not only for the community the Bielkus sisters have created, but for the instruction I received. Every step I took towards becoming a teacher they took alongside me. When I succeeded they celebrated with me. When I struggled they pushed me further. When I needed more help they gave it to me (I’m not special either. I’ve seen them go above and beyond for many students/teachers).
4 months of constant heated yoga practice later my classmates and I graduated. Our final activity together was a teacher trainee led group class: We all took turns teaching part of a yoga flow to an assortment of our friends and loved ones. I took the class, I taught my section, I laid down in savasana feeling like this:
Minutes/hours passed in savanna (still my favorite pose) before Vyda called us back to earth.
‘Deepen your breath, wiggle your fingers and toes, let your spirit make it’s way back to the surface,’ she said. We came back into our bodies.
‘Roll onto your right hand side into a fetal position.’ We rolled.
‘We’ll close class with one deep Om. Together we inhale…’
Even I, the reluctant yogi, took that breath.
‘Bring your hands to your third eye.’ We did.
I opened my eyes (wider?). I was a yoga instructor.
I found my teacher’s voice by mixing what I’ve learned about yoga, with what I know about training, anatomy, neurology.
I say things like ‘you’re body is a rough draft. Every time you arrive on your mat it’s a reflection of how you’ve moved, what you’ve eaten, how you’ve slept. Let’s shape the next draft.’
‘Michaelangelo said that ‘David’ was always there in the marble, he just had to remove everything that wasn’t him. Let’s remove all the tension, the stress that isn’t authentically you.’
‘Once upon a time I was the tightest, weakest, most fearful person in this room. But I embraced my fear. Became curious about it.’
I’ve been practicing four to five days a week for five years.
I can touch my toes, do a headstand, a handstand, an inversion, a twist, a balance. If I put my mind to it there isn’t a pose I can’t do (I’m a rough draft remember, it may take a month). It ain’t always pretty but you should have seen me 6 years ago. I could barely touch my toes when I started.
Look how far I’ve come.
What’s stopping you?
I teach six to seven classes a week. After every practice I cover my third eye, bow and say ‘namaste’. My eyes open. There are my students, smiling, eyes beaming back at me.
They are serene. Flexible. Calm. Floating a few inches off the floor.
No matter the weather, or what’s happening in their lives, no matter how hard we worked during class, there they are at the end, grinning wide.
Who woulda thought, Me, a yoga instructor?
It’s that kinda love story.
thanks to Sydney Stuberg for the above photo (and the one at the top).