It's Curiosity, Not Determination, That Gets
BY BETSY COHN
For most of my life, stubborn determination has gotten me from point A to point B.
I spent a grade-school beach vacation using a barbecue fork to yank from a conch shell its dead inhabitant so my mom could boil the shell for me to save as a souvenir. I overcame test anxiety that led to a humiliating 6 out of 21 (that's 28%--I calculated it!) on my first high school chemistry test and eventually earned a Bachelor of Science degree. Every day, I manage my nerves to walk into a classroom and do what I love: teach.
Through it all, here's what I discovered: it's not stubborn determination that gets you "there" in yoga; it's the willingness to drift in wonder.
When I ask myself how I went from someone who struggled, often unsuccessfully, with breath of fire to someone who did three days of White Tantric Yoga at a huge yoga retreat in Florida, I come up with only one answer: instead of struggling, I allowed myself to drift in the flow.
For many months, my relationship with breath of fire was strained. Actually, I hated it.
It made me feel self-conscious (I had to make noise!), dizzy and inept as I fought to find a rhythm and what's more, it always made my right side hurt. One minute was difficult to imagine, and when Katherine went for three, it seemed simply preposterous. A good day was when she seemed to forget about breath of fire altogether.
Then one day, practicing on my own at home and doing a kriya that (damn it) involved breath of fire, I suddenly realized that it was easy. My body was relaxed, my jaw unclenched, and my mind seemed almost not to notice my breath. I was enjoying it!
I was amazed and pleased and thankful, and I became curious about how that had happened and what would come next. I was hooked on the very thing I used to hate.
Staying hooked has meant also allowing for regression. There are days when suddenly breath of fire again feels like a fight, when I can't let myself breathe but instead try to make myself breathe, and I get frustrated, irritated and angry. Maybe I should hate it after all!
There are days when I am honestly still afraid to walk into a basic Karma Yoga class. What if I can't do it? What if I fail? I walk in and raise my arms to 60 degrees anyway, and I try to drift.
Curiosity, not confidence or skill, is what propelled me to register for 3HO's Winter Solstice Celebration and its three days of White Tantric Yoga, which I knew almost nothing about except that it was intense.
Very much unlike me, I didn't research it ahead of time to prepare for what I was getting into; I aimed simply to drift in. (Being in Katherine's wake, of course, helped!) I found its challenges surprisingly similar to those of breath of fire and the best response to be the same: just let go.
The first two meditations, each holding strenuous poses for 62 minutes, seemed as far-fetched as a three-minute breath of fire once did. I drew incredible energy by looking into my partner's eyes and ultimately found myself drifting in and out.
When I shook and felt like giving up the pose, her sweet eyes captured me and held me up. That happened over and over; really, it was nothing more than a string of moments, similar to a series of three-minute now-manageable breaths of fire, not a 62-minute block of time.
By letting myself ride the cycles, I got to the end, which was really just another beginning.
The next few meditations, equally challenging, were with eyes closed. And do you know what I found? An eye within me to capture and hold me up.
It was a purple circle that kept forming and telescoping smaller and smaller, disappearing into black and then re-forming; I found myself curious about where it was going and following it in, forgetting periodically about the posture I was holding.
The strength of my partner was actually her strength as a part of me. That was an amazing discovery.
These retreats seem to be full of people like me: relative novices with more curiosity than knowledge and skill, charged up by the welcoming energy of yoga veterans. At White Tantric Yoga, some people groaned and moaned and even broke poses; some people modified poses; some people sat in chairs rather than on the ground; some people even took a day off.
Nobody found it easy.
But I didn't hear anyone regret being there. Instead, I heard people marvel at the fact that although the meditations had been challenging and even very uncomfortable, they would come back and do it again in a heartbeat.
I was one of those people who wanted more.
My current nemesis is stretch pose. The other day, I had a brief moment of drift while holding that pose peacefullyâ€”before remembering that I hated it. I (sometimes) know that, like breath of fire, it will become part of me with time and surrender, and I am curious about what will come next.
Betsy Cohn teaches English full-time at Henry Ford Community College, where she lists her rescue dog, Rosie the Rambunctious, as her teaching assistant; Rosie thinks down-dog was invented to make licking faces easier and thinks the point of everything is to laugh. Both Rosie and yoga have been teaching Betsy well. Betsy's latest milestone: receiving her spiritual name, Atma Nam Kaur, which she hopes to identify with more over time!