Tag Archive for: yoga practice

Camel terrifies me. The yoga pose, not the cleft-footed, cleft-mouthed desert beast.

The first time I ever tried it was about eighteen months ago in my favorite yoga class. I was feeling pretty jazzed because I had been coming two to three times a week for about a month and was beginning to notice some subtle changes in my body shape. I was also pleased that I seemed to be able to hold some poses longer or get into them easier and deeper. Camel hadn’t been a part of this class, but I had seen it demonstrated and illustrated in yoga magazines, and I was pretty sure I could do it without looking silly.

I moved my knees to the top of my yoga mat, shins flush against the floor along with the tops of my feet. Knees bent, I faced the instructor at the front of the room as he asked us to sit up straight and tall. So far, this was good.

“Rise up through the crown of your head and expand your lungs, shining the beacon of your heart to the front of the room. Now, pull your shoulder blades down and together, letting your chest rise up even more. Gradually begin to reach your hands back to the small of your back and arch into it. If you can, reach your hands to your heels and rest them there, shining your heart up to the ceiling.”

I had my palms to the small of my back for less than a millisecond before I had the sensation of not being able to breathe. My esophagus slammed shut and I literally flung my upper body forward into a neutral position. What the heck? I shook it off and tried again. It took three attempts like this for me to accept that if I pushed myself into this pose I was going to have a full-blown panic attack right here in front of everyone. Tears knotted in my throat and I slid into child’s pose.

Back at home, I did a little research. Camel pose is aimed at opening up the heart. Nearly everyone gets an endorphin rush after being in camel pose and it is supposed to help with lymph drainage, massage the internal organs, and strengthen the spine. I am apparently not the only person who gets emotional or experiences difficulty performing camel. According to one site, LexiYoga, camel pose, “represents the ability to accomplish the impossible and to go through life’s challenges with ease. If you feel disconnected from the world, family/relationships or are struggling with forgiveness, practicing camel pose can help you express your feelings and find compassion towards others.”


The thing is, I don’t feel disconnected. In fact, I feel more self-aware and compassionate than I ever have. Even without my antidepressant (woohoo – going on three months, now!!), I feel centered and grounded and pretty joyful. So WTF?

I began to think about the poses I do enjoy. The ones that feel effortless. The ones I feel strong and accomplished at. Like Happy Baby and Pigeon and Warrior 4. Oh. Those are all hip-openers. Happy Baby is great because it releases any tension in my sacrum. Oh. What about that?

As someone who has been molested, I personally find it a little disturbing that, despite the years of therapy and the absolutely honest belief that I have forgiven the boy who perpetrated the abuse, I prefer a hip opener to a heart opener. Poses that, while not remotely sexual, have the potential to open up my hips and “offer” that part of my body more readily.

At yoga today, I was dreading the possibility that the instructor might have the class do Camel Pose. I had my excuse ready, “It scares the sh*t out of me.” ‘Nuff said. Only she didn’t include it in today’s class. And I was relieved. I got into Full Pigeon Pose and reveled in it. Imagining the tendons and muscle tissue in my hips releasing with the breath and relaxing into extension.

And when I got home, I decided to try Camel Pose on my own. In my bedroom. With the door closed. As always, just before my hands settled on top of my heels, the bile rose in my throat and I began to hyperventilate. I quickly pulled out of the pose, breathing heavily, and felt tears build just above the notch in my throat. A tingle in my nose was all it took for them to begin falling in a torrent. I feel utterly out of control in Camel. Utterly helpless. Utterly useless and worthless.

I am beginning to wonder whether my issue with this pose has less to do with my connection with others than my connection to myself. Perhaps my heart can’t shine that way because I don’t feel as though it is worthy of letting its light out into the Universe. I don’t know for sure. But, once again, I am grateful to my yoga practice for showing me the way to the next hurdle.

There are few words that slam into my gut with such force as FAIL.

I don’t mind tripping up, making a mistake, having to say, “Oops!” or even (gasp!) screwing something up. But I don’t like to FAIL.

Failing seems so final. So irretrievable. So…well, all-encompassing. It is a short leap from FAIL to FAILURE. There is no corresponding descriptor for someone who makes mistakes. They are not a “mistaker.” You can describe someone as a screw up, but at least in my mind, that conjures up teenage boys shoplifting cigarettes from the mini-mart or shooting spitballs in class and getting caught. There is redemption available from that, even if it takes a while or a move out of town to college where nobody knows your delinquent teenage history.

I went to a new yoga studio last week. There was this collective group coupon thing and the studio was near my house and, normally it is prohibitively expensive, but with this deal I could try it out ten times for pretty cheap. And my girlfriend was going, too, so I thought I’d try it. And at this point, I’m pretty sure that unless I can avoid taking a class with the owner of the studio, I won’t use the remaining classes I paid for. Because he likes the word FAIL. A lot.

Despite his admonitions to not think too much, be in the moment, respect our bodies’ limitations, and remember that yoga is primarily an exercise in training the mind and not the body, he quickly went all Marine-Corps-boot-camp-break-’em-down-to-build-’em-up on me. At one point he polled the class to see if we wanted to do some “ab work” (although I’m pretty sure he was going to do it no matter what anyone said). He then proceeded to have us to 200 crunches. In a room heated to 104 degrees. After already doing nearly an hour of intense yoga. And did I mention that even the floor is heated? So lying down to do crunches feels like as much relief as a slab of bacon feels when you flip it from one side to the other in a hot skillet.

We didn’t know we were doing 200 crunches. Thankfully. I am pretty sure I would have set my mind to cheating from the start had I known. Instead, he had us lie on our backs, extend one leg up into the air at a 90 degree angle to our torso, and put the other one straight out in front of us, hovering above the floor about two inches. And then do crunches. And he counted. And at about 40, I took a break. I rallied again from 60-80 and then took another break. And at 100, his booming voice filled every nook and cranny of the room.

“For those of you who haven’t FAILED (for the record, I’m not exaggerating his use of the word here – he put a lot of emphasis on that hateful set of letters), hang in there. Those of you who FAILED, forget it. But for those who didn’t FAIL, go ahead and hold it there for a moment. If you FAILED, I already know. This room has mirrors everywhere. You can’t fool your instructor.”


And after those stellar performers who are somehow motivated by NOT FAILING held their quivering abs in flexion for another ten seconds or so, we switched legs. And after the next 100 crunches, he repeated the same speech, just in case those of us who felt so badly about our inability to do each and every crunch on one side had already forgotten how much we had FAILED.

Yeah, I won’t be back. At one time in my life, the avoidance of the appearance of FAILURE would have motivated me. But only if I knew it might be an issue before I started something. Like a test at school or a race at the track meet or peeing my pants onstage during the ballet recital. But after the fact, it just feels mean. And, now that I’m not a kid anymore, it pisses me off.

So when I turned on my local NPR station yesterday to discover Tim Harford talking about why failing is so important to our learning processes, I was intrigued. His new book, “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure” sounds like something I want on my bookshelf. As the interview progressed, I had that feeling you get when something happens just the way you expect it to. Like when you come home to see your cat lying quietly in the sunspot on the living room carpet and, as you reach out your hand to stroke her back, that delicious warm, silky feeling shivers into your palm just like you knew it would. That’s how my brain felt listening to Tim Harford talk. We know this stuff. We know that making mistakes is vital to gaining knowledge. We know that for every success story, there are underwater-icebergs full of Whoops! moments. But we still push each other to be infallible. To avoid looking silly or miscalculating. Or FAILING. And I suspect that, often the words we use in situations like this have so much more impact than we know. Like I said, I don’t mind making a mistake or even screwing up.

I don’t honestly know whether I could have sucked it up and forced my body to do 200 crunches under the cracking whip of Mr. Yoga Ego. I do know that the 100 or so I actually did made my stomach muscles sore the next day. A good sore. A sore that meant I did some. And maybe it means that next time I’ll try for 150. Or not. Regardless, it doesn’t speak to my worth as a human being. Or a yogi. And it doesn’t mean I FAILED.

This summer in Hawaii I made a promise to myself to get up and go to the yoga classes offered on the beach every morning. Bubba hung out with the girls, playing in the sand, and jumping over waves while, 50 yards away, a group of 20 or so of us stood on hotel towels in the soft, dry sand and followed a yoga instructor.

Because of the mix of abilities, the class itself was pretty low-key and, while it wasn’t the sweaty, intense hour and a half I’m used to at home, even at 7:30am it was 80 degrees outside and the instructors each brought their own flair.
The first morning, our leader was a man somewhere in his 50s or 60s who peppered his poses with anecdotes about boxing (seems he was a boxer in the military), ballet (took classes as a teen), and meditation. Truly a renaissance man, he had moved to Maui to semi-retire and find a new relationship with the natural world. Many of his quips were groan inducing and I rolled my eyes more than once, but some of the things he said were so simple and true that I find myself recalling them often.
“The word yoga literally means ‘union.’ This is the union of your body and mind. That doesn’t mean your mind dictates and your body follows – that’s not union. Your mind listens to what your body is saying. Not judges or bosses. Just listens.”
“Breathe. Relax. Align. Do this over and over again. Yoga is more about breath and feeling than movement and exercise. Start from the base and build up. Build a strong foundation. Breathe. Relax. Align.”
He wasn’t kidding. Yoga on soft sand is all about alignment and having a strong foundation. It turns out it isn’t about pushing yourself to stay up when you think you will surely collapse. It is about listening to your ankles to see if your feet are aligned before you move up to your knees. I found myself setting and re-setting my foundation, seeking a strong, solid base and looking in my mind’s eye to make sure that both feet were pointed forward, my hips were on equal planes, my knees weren’t twisted. I can’t say that my body was pushed much during these classes, but the calm grounding that comes from truly listening to my body and making sure it has what it needs was more than I thought I would get.
I think about how often I expect my body to put itself into positions that aren’t comfortable in order to accomplish something on my mind’s agenda. The years I wore high heels to work (not a chance you’ll find me in them now) punished my hips and lower back. The hour or so I sit working at my laptop in the front seat of the car without enough room to rest my wrists because it doesn’t make sense to go home and come back to get the girls from school mean sore shoulders and tingling fingers at bedtime.
Since that class I find myself occasionally closing my eyes to check in with my body. Breathe. Relax. Align. Hips? You okay? Feet? Where are you now? Shoulders? Do you need to let go? It doesn’t happen as often as it should, but I’m certainly more aware that my body has spent an awful lot of time catering to the whims of my mind and I’m trying to even the score a little.