Addendum 1/15/2020: In light of recent information about J. Brown, I have made a statement, but I have chosen to leave this post relatively intact. It does not reflect my current view of him as a teacher.
“Be prepared to fall with a smile.”
Every time I hear J. Brown say this during Tree pose instruction on his DVD, I feel immediate relief. Yes, I mean relief of tension, but it’s more than that. It’s like the feeling of, “Oh, thank God,” washes over me. I don’t have to try so hard anymore. Trying hard is what I do. It’s my drug of choice. Yet, I didn’t fully realize how much harm I had been doing to myself until this week.
J has a podcast in which he put out a request for anyone who was available and who could get there to apply to appear in a new online training he was filming titled Gentle is the New Advanced. When I discovered that this filming was going to be taking place a mere 2.5 hours from my home, this voice inside me compelled me to apply. It wasn’t a feeling of, “Oh, I hope I get picked.” It was more like, “Yes. We are doing this. This is happening whether you like it or not.”
I have read J’s blog, and I knew he had written something of the same title. I remember when I read it thinking that he was just another person dogging what I did. Again, I was really invested in this “try really hard all the time” philosophy. I’m a pretty ambitious person, and I have a very clawing, gnashing-teeth kind of philosophy about life. My history with yoga (particularly with asana practice) was no different. I had to try really hard to get up into full Wheel. I had to try really hard to get strong enough for Chaturanga. I had to try really hard to axially extend in every pose and all through life so I could have better posture. (Which oddly enough never helped my posture, but did make it easier to fake good posture at will until the person I was trying to impress left the room.)
But the thing is, I’ve been in pain a lot of the time. I’ve been in inexplicable physical pain my whole adult life. It began getting somewhat unmanageable when my father first got sick in 2008, and in 2011 when he died the pain had reached a point where I was severely depressed and had trouble working. My hands, shoulders, back, hips, all hurt. I went to the doctor, and all I got were steroids and several recommendations to get thine ass to a therapist because on paper, structurally, nothing was wrong. So, I did get my ass to several therapists, and true to my “go hard or go home” fashion I got real damn serious about this healing business. I also got massage, went vegan for a while, went to the acupuncturist, and started a yoga practice. Little did I know then how much I was white-knuckling my own healing process.
I really loved yoga, and it really helped. Over time my issues got better. Yet, I’ve always been in this cycle: I feel good so I try really hard. Something hurts, so I have to highly modify my practice or not even practice at all, until I feel good again, and then the cycle repeats. J. Brown’s DVD has kind of been my go to for when I’m injured or experiencing a lot of pain. Yet when I feel better, I always go back to my heated power vinyasa classes. Because in my mind, heated power vinyasa was what I was supposed to be doing. It was better because it was harder. I had to really work at that, and I’m supposed to be trying really hard, right? My back wasn’t going to get better unless I did all this core work. My shoulders were going to hurt unless I could force them open through multiple Upward Facing Dogs and Wheel poses. Yet, I noticed my home practice began changing. My home practice began to look a lot like the yoga I teach in my TIMBo groups: simple movement and breath. Lots of quiet and stillness. Less effort, more presence.
In the process of filming this training, we had a lot of practice and a lot of discussion. At one point, J. had asked me how I felt. I admitted I was in some pain, but I was used to it because I was in some sort of physical pain all the time. As soon as the words left my mouth, I was surprised. It was the first time I had spoken that out loud to anyone other than my husband. I cried during this training…a lot. Every time I posed a question water would leak out of my eyes. I really tried to hold some of it in because I was on camera, and I was afraid he would have to change his training title from “Gentle is the New Advanced” to “Imbalanced Woman Interrupts Perfectly Good Yoga Workshop with Various Mental Breakdowns.” Yet, I allowed the tears come as much as they could because if I had learned anything in these two days it was force wasn’t doing me any favors. All my striving for change, growth, and transformation just widened the gap. If I am here and a better life is somewhere else, then we will never meet. Striving for well-being means that I am not well now and never will be. While I think a lot of us believe that this constant struggle to get better (whether it’s with exercise, diet, behaviors, depression, etc.) actually makes us better, it is negating of our present experience. My own struggle to be free of pain only created more pain because it was rooted in the belief that anything I was doing now was not enough.
On the drive home from the workshop, I got about one hour down the highway, and I started to sob. The struggle to maintain my pretty cry-face gave way for the need to grieve: for my Dad, for the pain I had, for the pain I added onto that pain. While I was completely broken hearted in that moment, I began to notice my body. In my sobbing, I noticed how my shoulders shaked. The heaving of my chest. The deep gasps for air between whimpers. This is how tension and pain is released. It isn’t through forcing myself deeper into a twisting asana. It’s released through trembling of the body, the deep intake of air through sighs, the water that comes from eyes, and even the guttural, wailing noise of grief. There is no need to struggle, to try, or to force.
The body knows perfectly. The yoga just helps us unlearn the trying.