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Yoga silences the ‘chattering monkey’ of competition


Ridiculous, to be nervous of a yoga class. I stand clutching my mat, glad it’s the fold-up kind and not one of those cumbersome foam rolls — and then worried that it’s the fold-up kind, nobody else has that kind. I planned my outfit carefully: Sweats, gray sweatshirt, pink T-shirt, sort of suburban-mom (I am neither), with black Keds and pink socks demonstrating meditative attention to detail. It’s too coordinated, I realize now, like a first-time air traveler who wears a wool suit and brings a blowup pillow and snacks.

I believe the masters call this state of mind “chattering monkey.”

Mercifully, the class finally begins. We troop into the gym and unfurl our mats (me meekly squatting to unfold) while the teacher puts on soft, Indian music and dims the lights. In a pleasantly neutral way, it’s seductive — and even more so when he begins to speak, shyly, about his desire that we all find peace.

By notched degrees, my old phys. ed. anxiety starts to subside. I am, after all, no longer wearing a one-piece red snap-up gathered at the thighs, name clumsily embroidered on the back in gold. Nor do I need a note from my mom, not even to skip the next seven classes.

Yeah, but I have to face my husband, who would mentally tie my absenteeism to the handlebar of the expensive exercise machine now caddying mufflers in the basement. Exertion has always been a problem for me.

Ah, the nice, gentle man is talking again, urging us to breathe our full breath, not try to match anyone else’s pace. This I find especially reassuring: I tend to breathe slowly and once nearly asphyxiated myself in a romantic attempt to breathe in tandem rhythm.

“This is not a competition,” the teacher says firmly. “Some of you will want to move on to the full postures. Others may find the first stretches challenging enough. Listen to your own body and follow it. If your muscles want to stretch a certain way, do that instead of whatever I’m saying to do.”

I roll over on my mat and sit up in amazement. An exercise teacher devoid of ego? An athletic event in which I need not tear someone else’s eyes out? A chance to listen to my own body and not someone else’s unattainable goals for its rehabilitation?

Settling back against the mat again, I press my shoulder blades toward the earth and breathe really, really deeply. I feel the same glow I felt at a blues festival, when after years of knowing, with sour-stomached sureness, that I couldn’t dance, I started swaying unconsciously, broad-hipped and happy — and noticed that my mother’s lithe, light-footed Ginger Rogers body hadn’t a clue how to move sinuously. Dancing, I decided then, is not something you can or cannot do. It’s simply a matter of finding your music.

So maybe exercise is not medieval torture for bookworms but simply a matter of finding the motions that suit you.

Mr. Z. would hate that. Our P.E. teacher in the primary grades, Mr. Z. (who had an unpronounceable ethnic last name and relished being called by the last letter of the alphabet) was a hearty, beer-bellied, whistle-blowing fascist who loved nothing more than to poke in your tummy, whack your backbone straight and yell at you to tuck your tail under. Not being a doe, I had no idea how to execute the maneuver, let alone any of the thousand other tortures he goaded us to perform at the puff of a whistle.

Competition no doubt comes easy to you athletic types. I had the luck of being utterly uncoordinated, smaller than the other kids in my class, an only child untrained in physical combat. Mr. Z. was my idea of Sartre’s Other, and I avoided his eyes whenever possible.

Now, from the vantage point of what’s supposed to be maturity, I listen to the gentle yoga teacher and ask myself, “Why couldn’t it have been like this always? Why didn’t someone whisper to me, ‘Don’t worry, this just isn’t your thing,’ instead of urging me to heave my chubby body toward that leather horse for the 450th time? Why do we, year after year, make our children miserable so somebody can ‘win?’ ”

The scorecard follows us for the rest of our lives. Measure your performance constantly; compare yourself with everyone you meet; squint anxiously at the electronic board, desperate to see how you’re doing.

Even our economy relies on a certain percentage of unemployed “losers” to remain solvent. We are so conditioned to this fight-or-flight, win-or-lose adrenaline that it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you drained away the competitive ambition, people probably would spend the day idling in a hammock. Nothing else inspires us.

What would happen, I wonder as I humbly bend my head toward my calf, unbothered by a 7-inch gap only masochism could close — what would happen if all the Fortune 500 CEOs took a yoga class together? What if the new mission statement emphasized peace, flow, flexibility, sensitivity, relaxation, creativity and harmony? What if they took deep, full, satisfying breaths every time they felt like firing somebody?

Most Americans can’t even think about the prospect without hyperventilating. In Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, Dr. Mark Epstein, a Zen Buddhist psychoanalyst, calls our problem “psychological materialism.” This constant, competitive effort to build up a bigger, better, more self-sufficient self “leads everyone to be afraid of everyone else,” he tells me, “because everyone else is still a threat. And a lot of our unhappiness flows from that.

“People in this society are overvigilant,” he says. “We are led to believe we have to be mobilized all the time, vigilant, ready for the next challenge.” Poised for the relay baton, ready to run for our lives.

Instead of gently stretching.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer at The Riverfront Times an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 1999