The Monkey Mind

Rachel ToorDon’t force it? If I didn’t force it I wouldn’t be here.

I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be thinking about how much I hate my good friend Val right now. I hate her for being able to fold at the waist, wrap her arms around her legs, and kiss her own knees. She’s got her face nestled into her shins and I can barely touch my own ankles.

I’m pretty sure that when we’re in crow pose, I shouldn’t want to give Val, one of my oldest, closest friends a shove—just a little push, really—and watch her topple from that perfect perch on her elbows.

I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be having any of the seven hundred thoughts going through my head: How much longer is this going to last? Why did I agree to do this? Is Val gloating about being so stretchy? Is she looking at me thinking, Ha! You may be able to run faster, but look how bendy I am!

In fact, I’m almost positive that every thought that’s going through my mind—competitive, petty, jealous, angry, distracted, hopeless, impatient—is the opposite of what yoga is supposed to be all about.

And yet, every time I do yoga, this is what happens in my head.

What happens in my body is a whole other story. A sad, sad story of hamstrings that will not give, of arms that don’t have the strength to support my own weight, of a stomach that decides to rumble loudest in the quietest rooms, whose gas picks mortifying times to pass.

When people say that they love to stretch, I want to hit them. Just as I want to clobber the folks who say they love to write. I find both these undertakings unutterably difficult. Stretching—and writing—for me are painful endeavors.

I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be able to reach down from a standing position and “rest” your hands on the floor. Or sit in lotus pose for more than four seconds. Or balance on one foot like a tree.

On the rare occasions I take yoga classes—and I am speaking here of the perhaps peculiarly American practice that involves deracinated Sanskrit words, membership cards, and expensive tight clothing—I end up looking around at sinewy women who can contort themselves into pretzels and gorging on envy. They seem so at home in their bodies, comfortable in poses that feel to me like waterboarding. The teachers tell me not to force it, to go as far as I can, but let’s be honest: if I didn’t force it I’d just end up standing there. Actually, if I didn’t force it, I’d be lying on a couch reading a novel. In the inescapable glare of dimly lit mirrors I discover new flaws in myself.

I know that yoga might be good for me, that a regular and truly spiritual practice could benefit my heart, soul, and mind. I know that yoga is probably (though not conclusively, based on divisive findings in sports science) a balm for my runner-tight body. So periodically I go to classes; the whole time I look forward to them being over.

Not long ago, when I was in Chicago visiting Val, she asked if I wanted to join her and her partner for a yoga class. The teacher was coming to their house that evening. I could go right to bed after. My usual excuses evaporated and I couldn’t get myself to say no, even though I wanted to.

I had recently run a hard 50K trail race at a ski resort at the end of a season of long, hard races. Yet here I felt like a weak, out-of-shape lump of unmovable flesh. I watched the teacher and Val and Val’s partner—a man! How could a man be more stretchy than me?—and silently reviled them all.

Until we got to savasana, corpse pose.

I lay there and, after a while, the frenetic thoughts in my head slowed to a jog. And then they stilled. I stopped worrying about work, quit thinking about how hungry I was, and I was able to sink into my mat. After a bit, I could feel myself rise above my body, I swear it. I had a moment when I got there. I got there.

I saw what it could be like.

I love the idea of finding a way to still my frenetic mind, and if I were a better person, and I thought this would happen each time I lay like a dead body, I would try to practice yoga consistently.

But I’m afraid that I would also stop writing.

When I don’t run enough, I have nothing to say. Something about the act of running allows things to jog loose in my mind and helps me have ideas, lets me to work them out, frees me to wonder about things. Part of it might be the salutatory effects of natural beauty. When I’m outside among gasp-worthy scenery, I am paradoxically able to go deeper into my own head. Instead of trying to quiet the shrieking stinking monkey house of my overfull brain, I let it rip. If I’m angry, I run faster. If I’m stuck, I run until whatever got clogged shakes free.

Sometimes I take it easy, sometimes I challenge myself on runs. I task myself to be braver and crazier than what makes me comfortable. I do exactly what the yogis tell me not to do: I force it. I expose myself to brutal weather, and to solo ascents, and to more miles than is good for me. I keep going when I want to stop, run when I want to walk.

For a balanced life perhaps I need not make a choice. I could run and do yoga, and if I could find as easy a way to bring yoga into my daily routine, I’m sure I would come to rely on it. I know I’ve nipped only the smallest sip of what it could do for me. But for me, right now, there’s nothing more beautiful or simple than putting on my running shoes and heading out the door. And nothing that does more for my mind, body and soul. Namaste.


May 16, 2014 at 3:35 pm

I whole heartedly agree! As an ultra runner myself, touching my toes is that elusive dream I keep trying for every time I take a yoga class (which seems like once a year). I wish I could find that balance as I know they would compliment each other. For now, I am content to run when my busy full time working mom life allows instead of finding that perfect yoga class to escape in. Namaste!


May 17, 2014 at 9:47 am

I love this.
1. Your savasana experience?! Awesome. Love when I get those moments during my practice. It is certainly not every time, but when it happens, it’s pretty freaking magical and worth all the times that led me to that time. And pretty astounding that even after all the resisting and million-thoughts-a-minute and secret (not so secret?) hatred you were throwing at Val, you could get to that space. You go!

2. Maybe for an experiment, try going to a yoga class 2-3x/week for a couple months. Even 1x/week. It’s amazing how different the body is on different days. Oh, what a few months of “stretching” can do for those hammies! And if you find an instructor who is your “type” of instructor — who leads you to a magical corpse pose, or you notice that when s/he tells you to close your eyes in Equal Standing Pose you feel tingly, or who seems to have good *energy* even if you don’t believe in energy–you ask her/him for her/his rates for private lessons and you invite ’em to guide you through practice at your house. As you said, it’s hard to make an excuse not to go at that point…

3. Or don’t. I dread running. Every time I let someone convince me to go for a run, I feel as though I hate every moment of it and just want it to be over. And then it is. And then this weird thing happens where I kind of feel good at that point. And I remember that good-feeling moment the next time I consider lacing up, but every step along the way feels like “Why? Why? Why? Why would I do this to myself? Why am I still doing this to myself?”

4. Whatever you do to quiet your mind or shake things loose in it is awesome. Forced or not. 🙂


Jannine Myers

May 18, 2014 at 2:35 am

I love your articles and posts Rachel. In fact, it surprises me that writing is difficult for you, since you write so beautifully. No matter how difficult it feels, please keep writing!


May 20, 2014 at 3:12 pm

Hi Rachel – thanks very much for sharing that experience with the world, I have liked your post very much. I hardly ever post anything in the internet, but I could not resist this time…

To put some perspective, I am one of those men that you seemm to “hate” 😉 I am very far from a naturally flexible person, in fact the oposite, but many years of regular yoga practice have reshaped my body into what you can call, compared to the average person, a bendy one.

Firstly, in my view and experience, Yoga is NOT about being bendy; rather, a tool that helps you find yourself, be happier, better, etc etc. If you find that running, then running IS your yoga practice, no doubt about it!

Also, yoga is not about being able to do this or that; rather, about tha path that takes you there. I know this is very much a cliche, but it is a much true as it is a cliche. When I started in yoga (with the only intention of having a nice stretch, fair enough…) I remember looking at those other yogis, flexible, being able to do this or that posture, while I could not even touch my toes with my hands. I remember I used to feel somewhat jelous of them, feeling that there was an inmense ocean in front of me to navigate for me to get there (to do those postures). Then time went on, in which I kept my constant yoga practice, and one day I realised that I could now do those postures that were imposible for me only a number of months ago. However, I was now somewhat jelous about those “other” people that could do those more advanced postures, and then had a bit of a frustrating feeling of having stil that inmese ocean to navigate ahead of me, in order to “get there”.

Then, one day I thought… this process has been going on for some time, perhaps a couple of years, and I am realising that it does not matter what I do, I am always going to feel that ocean in front of me. And also, it seems that those other super-flexible yogis are also feeling that ocean! Why? because (I learnt) human beings have an infinite capability to grow, and that infinity was the ocean I was seeing. I also realised that I was feeling very nicely about my yoga practice, it was leaving in me a nice experience that I did not want to stop… and then the light went on: it appears that what makes us feel happy, satisfied, content, fufilled, is not where we are in the ocean (we are always going to be in the middle if it, sometimes anxious, disoriented and lost), but the fact itself that we are navigating the ocean. So, I’d better relax, enjoy and keep on navigaing with a smile on my face as much as I can.

Then I immediataly saw that what I have just said does not only apply to yoga, but to running, developing a career, creating a family, working on relatioships, etc. In fact, in anything that can be fulfilling in live: what makes us enjoy it, really, is the path we walk, not the place we are.

Yoga gave me that tool and perspective that made me see live with a new, nicer, better, more realisitic and practical perspective. That day I understood what it was meant by the “spiritual” side of yoga, a word that I dislike because it has wierd quasi-religious connotations, when to me all it means is that it gives you the common sense that follows a peaceful and balanced mind and body.

Thirdly, I got to that point because I practice consistently. Would I be able to get anywhere running-wise if I only went for a run, once a month, with my friend X that runs every other day? Obviously I will get nothing out of if, appart from feeling a bit stupid running next to this super-fit-running frick 🙂 For the same reason, if you practice yoga only from time to time, next to an experienced yogi, you are going to feel frustratred, quite naturaly!!! What woud you expect?! To get anywhere in anything in live you need to commit to it, be consistent, have discipline, be forgiving with yourself (without being complacent), follow the lead of good teachers, soround yourself by fellow piers with whome you can share your experience and relate to and, above all, be patient. This applies to running, yoga and anything imporant in live… I’d think.

And finally, by the way, there are lots of yoga styles, all good as long as they make you feel good. I do not tend to like those wobly-bobly styles in which you do not make any effort, I think they miss a lot of what is good in yoga. Meditation is central, but good quality physical excersise too… in yoga terms, if you want to create prana and make it move freely through you chakras, you need to clean it by creating symmetry, stretching sensibly and swetting. In western words, if you want to feel great you need to free your body to toxins, make it fluid in your joints and muscles, and create joint stability. For that, you indeed need to work (very) hard. Perhaps you want to try Bikram yoga; it has things that I do not sympathise with, but LOTS of other things that i like a lot. It seems it could be your cup of tea… as we say in England!

Well, here it is… I thought this was going to be a few lines, and look at that now!!!

I hope sharing my experience helps someone out there 🙂

All the best to everyone!

Ohm, Shanti 😀

Rachel Toor

May 20, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Thanks so much for the suggestions (both here and in personal communications). I suspect I am missing something. I have tried Bikram–loved the hot part, got a little bored with the routine. Not surprisingly, my monkey mind wouldn’t allow me to enjoy the poses that came easily because I spent all my energy dreading what was coming next. I know, I know….

Valerie Cannon

June 10, 2014 at 2:13 pm

As a 10-yr yoga practioner/teacher, I really enjoyed Iggs post, thanks!! The comparison to occasional running and occasional yoga sessions is a lovely one. I run 3-6 mi/day and do yoga most days, too; in both areas, I know, we are all exactly where we are supposed to be. Thanks Iggs & Rachel! No matter what we do, it seems the body’s activities are ways to get the breath where it’s supposed to be to benefit us. Swimming is so interesting to me because the rhythm of the body movement to breath is actually very similar to a yoga process (movement follows breath). It’s all so very interesting!!!

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