I was thinking yesterday while hammering at the bench. That kind of unfocused train of thought which sometimes results in a burst of creatively or the sudden connection of two seemingly unrelated things.
I remembered third grade. Our teacher was an eccentric woman with large black bouffant hair and purple eye shadow from lid to brow. She wore lots of silver jewelry that jingled as she walked through the classroom and she drank chocolate soda at lunch, which to a third grader was the pure embodiment of everything delicious we weren’t allowed to have (and to my adult self is the epitome of the 1980’s food industry). She was intense, with a sharpness about her that was magnified on days when her migraines set in and she wore a tight band (‘Rambo’-style) around her head all day and winced at us when we spoke.
I remember her for all those things, but mostly for an off-handed comment that she probably doesn’t even remember making. As she handed out tests (licking her thumb and index finger between each one), she would go over the rules. Last name first, first name last, use number-two pencils only, and keep your eyes on your own paper. Most of my childhood test-taking memories involve elaborate attempts at preventing cheating. We would hunch over our papers with an arm covering our work, or use the test to cover each row of penciled in bubbles as we went along. There was even one teacher who would construct tri-fold cardboard on each desktop to keep wandering eyes at bay (and unwittingly allow us to count on our fingers with no shame).
But that day one boy managed to get an eyeful of another boy’s test and a quarrel broke out in the classroom. She didn’t waste any time getting to the bottom of it, in front of the entire class.
“What’s this about?!”
“He looked at my test!” (breathless with outrage).
“Why were you looking at his paper?”
“To get the answer.” His voice barely above a whisper.
She wrinkled her brow in what could have been confusion or disgust.
“But…what if he was wrong???”
That stuck with me. Why assume that someone else knows what they’re doing any more than you do? Like a lot of growing-up lessons, it needed repetition.
Fast forward ten years to my first yoga class. I looked around the room constantly to be sure I was doing it “right”. Eventually I found my rhythm and stopped checking to see if I was touching my toes while everyone else was reaching for the ceiling. No longer fearful of doing it wrong, I became interested in doing it better. I wasn’t aggressive or rude, but I spent the class in a silent peripheral-vision competition with whoever was on the next mat.
I was missing out on the entire point of yoga. There was nothing calming about my practice. No inner growth. Not until a beloved teacher started a class one day with the suggestion that the class “keep your practice on your own mat”.
She explained that we were not there to compare ourselves with anyone else (for better or for worse), or even with ourselves. We should instead aim to listen to our bodies and honor what was within us that day.
Heidi Kristoffer said it best, “It is irrelevant what anyone else is doing. No two bodies are in the same place ever. My body is never in exactly the same place ever. Just because something felt great yesterday does not mean that it will feel great today.”
Again that message stuck with me.
Slowly I broke the comparison habit and started focusing on my own body and my own breath. I learned so much by ignoring not only the other people in the room but even who I was last week. Instead of forcing a pose just because I’d accomplished it before, I eased into my movements, listening to the response from my body that day. And I learned to enjoy the ebbs and flows of my practice. I saw my growth from a further perspective, comparing years of work instead of class-to-class.
This mentality has served me well as a business owner. Instead of poring over the numbers as they climb and fall each day, I ignore the bottom line and do what my creative urge calls for. Then at the end of the month, I step back and look at the overall growth. And during the slower retail months (July, especially in our shop), instead of panic at the decrease in work, I look at the whole picture of the last few years and see the annual pattern. Then it’s clear that July is actually a gift. (A welcome respite before the holiday season!)
We are all the products of our own experiences and life lessons. But I don’t think it’s ever too late to trust our own answers and keep our practice on our own mat. Worry less about what you accomplished last year and focus on what you would like to accomplish today. Maybe last year you could run a marathon and today you can only make it around the block. Do it anyway. A year from now you might have the perspective of looking back on today as the day you re-started your training and set the wheels in motion for something fantastic to reveal itself.