Willing to Learn

There’s this old story I’ve heard a few times that goes like this:  A person asks a master (of yoga, meditation, or a martial art depending on who is telling the story), “How can I find a good teacher?” And the wise master says, “The more important question is, “Where can I find a good student?”

I’ve always been resistant to these wise words.  You see, I’m kind of a horrible student.  Maybe I was too clever for my own good.  I always had good grades in school, and even acted like a know-it-all.  I’ve always liked to know things or at least claim to know them, but when I think about the process of actually learning, I don’t have the patience for it.  I skim most of what I read.  I take shortcuts.  I don’t pay attention, and I generally don’t like doing hard things.

This leaks over into by ability to be a yoga student.  I made plans to work on a particular skill or posture, and then I got bored after about two days and moved onto something else.  I won’t go so far as to say I’m undisciplined.  I’ve had a regular practice (meaning I practice some sort of asana and meditation) six days a week, but the only thing regular is its frequency.  It could be anything from 90 minutes of power yoga to 15 minutes of seated folds.  For the past three years it was enough for me, but this year I just began to feel really unsure, unfocused, and undisciplined.

For a while, I blamed a lot of things and people for that.  Was it my teacher’s fault?  All the studios where I taught? Baptiste yoga? modern western yoga culture?  I spent a lot of that time whining internally about not being able to find a good teacher when I had some pretty amazing teachers around, but I was being one crappy student: lazy, entitled, and stubborn.  Even this yoga teacher can fall victim to the same pitfalls everyone else does:  rather than looking and addressing what’s on the inside, I chose to blame and point fingers to everything on the outside.

After listening to a teacher tell this “good student” story again, it gave me pause.  Maybe instead of criticizing other people for not giving me the focus, structure, and discipline I wanted, I should learn to cultivate it for myself.  I came up with a simple plan:  Just do ten Sun Salutations every day until they feel comfortable then possibly add on.  That’s it.  I made sure each one had the equal amount of breaths so I didn’t blow through them too quickly.  I don’t know if it was my slower pace or some other factor, but this was surprisingly really hard for me.  I would perform five Surya Namaskar A’s with no problems, but about the second Surya Namaskar B, something would change.  My legs would begin to tremble, and then uncontrollably shake.  My breath would get shorter and shorter until I would drop to my knees because I couldn’t catch my breath.  This wasn’t simple muscle exertion.  I was actually having a panic attack.   I’ve had many panic attacks in my life, but yoga had always helped keep them at bay.  Now, yoga seemed to trigger them to happen.  I felt incredibly ashamed and heartbroken over it.  A series of poses that I had done thousands of times and taught every single day, I couldn’t do anymore without crying, shaking, and feeling terror.

My practice wasn’t reflecting this image I had of myself, and honestly, I questioned my plan altogether.  *Maybe this is the end of yoga for me*  Yet, some place within me, just urged me to do what I can, and come back tomorrow.  Some days, if I felt the panic coming on, I just stopped.  Other days I would hold Downward Facing Dog while sobbing and uncontrollably shaking, but counting breaths.

3……….4……..5……jump *made it through one more today*

It was like this everyday for about two months, and then one day, it was gone.  The first time I had a panic-less practice I kept waiting for it to happen, and it never came.  The Sun Salutation still doesn’t feel that great to me, but at least I feel safe doing one in public again.  I’m not really sure why this whole thing happened, but it has helped get me closer to being a better student of yoga.

My struggle with Surya Namaskar did teach me what it meant to be a good student.  Good students don’t just know a lot of things, and they aren’t the ones that can naturally perform a task well.  They are curious.  They have grit and determination balanced out with humility and patience.  Learning means coming face to face with your own weaknesses and resistances not just once, but day after day for the rest of eternity.  The learning process never ends.  When the day comes that I add on to my home practice sequence, there will be other hurdles to jump and different resistances to witness.  Before, that was a pretty daunting concept to me.  I wanted to know everything and be done with lessons, resistance, and feeling uncomfortable.  Now, not knowing everything actually feels hopeful to me.  That’s the part of being a good student that I was missing all along.  I didn’t have to know anything.  I just had to be willing to learn.