The Monkey Mind
Don’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.
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