I Am Not Playful! (But, If It’s Not Too Late, Could I Be?)
On our morning rush to the train station, we drove by a neighbor whose 8-year-old daughter was waiting for her school bus and happened to do an amazingly perfect cartwheel just as we passed by. “Ah,” I smiled. “I remember when I was good at doing cartwheels!” Pause. “Who am I kidding? I was never good at cartwheels!” We laughed. The daughter of unathletic scientists, I grew up as a bookworm – usually one of the last to be picked for a softball team. After all, I throw like a girl. Any athletic ability I have has been hard-won as an adult.
I remember wanting to be good at cartwheels. Every year we would get to the gymnastics part of the P.E. curriculum and I would be in awe of (and jealous of) the girls who seemed to effortlessly fly through the air. These girls were pretty and social with each other, banding together with seeming ease and confidence. I was not one of the popular, pretty, confident girls. (Though I pretended to be one when I was a older.) When I was 8, practicing cartwheels in my front yard, I was a watchful and lonely only child who was afraid of going upside down in a cartwheel or a handstand. Practicing over and over again for that fleeting blissful moment when I felt a hint of that thrill when I maybe kind of sort of did it.
I have experienced that thrill in yoga, practicing handstand over and over again, flying upside down – against the wall, of course! Sometimes there are fleeting blissful moments when I feel perfectly balanced and hover away from the wall. It’s enough to make me wonder if I could do a cartwheel. At 51. Maybe kind of sort of. Maybe it’s not too late.
Like life, I show up at yoga, bringing every facet of my personality and all my emotions. Good, bad, embarrassing. All of it is on my mat. There is my regular class, where I feel deeply connected to my teacher, am friends with the other students, and feel confident of my abilities as yogini. I situate myself in the back row with the other regulars, checking in with my friends and even joking around – like high school seniors goofing off in the back of the bus (not that I was ever a back of the bus kind of girl). Then there is an assortment of classes in Manhattan that I slip into irregularly. I might know the teacher, but I don’t really know the other students. I breathe, enjoy the sensation and familiarity of the poses, and the feeling of sneaking some peace in the middle of my work life. Manhattan has the trendy, competitive thing going on. Classes can be crowded, the average age is about 30, and everyone knows their way around Surya Namaskar A and B, jumping back to Chaturanga while nonchalantly tossing in a handstand. I expect the crowded competitiveness in Manhattan and deal with it by ignoring it. Aggressively. Refusing. To Participate. I have found some quieter classes where there is a wider range of ages and abilities where I feel more comfortable.
So, it’s with some surprise that I have found myself struggling in my suburban local studio where I did my teacher training and feel at home. Checking out some of the more advanced classes that don’t always fit into my schedule, I’ve found them crowded with people I don’t know. Hey, this is my place! What are you doing here? I have found myself feeling on the periphery as the regulars take their place. Sizing myself up against the group and feeling like I don’t measure up. Younger, stronger, more confident. It’s enough to make me want to not even try. That’s how I deal with competition. I shouldn’t have to prove myself. Hang on though, why is competitiveness showing up on my mat anyway? That’s not yogic!
The teacher – one of the younger, popular, pretty ones who I simultaneously adore and am jealous of because she seems to sail through life with a sense of humor and a keen sense of love and compassion for others, possessing a range of qualities that I regularly feel lacking in – urges us to be playful and to get in touch with our inner child as we attempt some challenging arm balances. Sigh. I hate being urged to be playful. I Am Not Playful. But I know what she’s aiming for and I love her so I try to go with the flow. With each vinyasa though, I get angrier and increasingly frustrated. I don’t want to work this hard and I can’t “do it.” The regulars are doing it, why can’t I? In the past I would have been in the front row proving that I can do it. I don’t want to prove it any more. Wait, that’s not true, I do want to prove it. The conflict makes me feel angry and sad. And kind of victim-y. Am I going to have to phase out advanced classes from my repertoire? Have I hit my peak and it’s downhill from here?
Is it too late?
I look inside for my inner child. My inner child is anxious, watchful, and lonely. She is not helping me find a playful approach to arm balances. In fact, she’s just making me feel angrier and sadder and more sorry for myself. I lie in Savasana weeping. Sad that I am not playful. Sad that I was such a forlorn little girl. Angry at feeling out of place in my home-base studio. Angry at not being “the best” at yoga. Jealous of the teacher for being so popular and easeful. Jealous of the other students for being so strong and self-assured. And tired, so tired, of not being able to find the joy. Ready to slip out of class unnoticed and invisible, my community of yoga teachers and friends notices me and my tears and embraces me with love and compassion. Perhaps I do not need to be anxious, watchful, lonely, and unnoticed anymore. Perhaps I can let my forlorn inner child go. I may never be a very playful person but I can be joyful and grateful. After all, my body is healthy and strong and I have loving friends and family.
I remember buying yoga pants once and the size that fit was “Large.” All I could think was, “Gee, if I’m a large, what are the large people wearing?” And so it goes. If I am struggling in yoga class, what do the less experienced people do? Well, I think they don’t even show up. And that’s a shame. Because the benefits of yoga come from breathing and meditation and the process of discovering. A person of any age and any level of fitness can breathe and meditate and discover herself. Perhaps that is my next step as a yoga student and a yoga teacher. There will always be someone “better” than me. The trick is in finding some peace in the process, some joy in the discovering, and sharing it with others. Maybe I will never do exotic arm balances, but maybe, just maybe, I will kind of sort of do a cartwheel someday. Or maybe, more importantly, I will help some inner girl to do a cartwheel.