3 Things Not Being an Athlete Taught Me About Yoga

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I’m not an athlete.

I was the classic picked-last-in-gym-class, slow-to-run-a-mile, uncoordinated high school theater dork slash bookworm who strained to touch her toes in the Presidential Fitness Test. I ran one season of cross country in sophomore year (a large chunk of which I had to sit out with an injury) and I played recreational league softball for a few years, but I was no champion. 

Despite my efforts, sports never came easily to my body: Every time I’d get into something new and, through diligence and sheer stubborn force of will, find a comfortable rhythm with it, a new injury would inevitably crop up and lay me out. After hip and low back problems, an ankle sprain that never fully recovered, and a persistent case of plantar fasciitis, I finally decided to give up running indefinitely a few months ago. I didn’t do that because of the stabbing pain in my left heel, though. I did it because it was my left ankle that had been sprained before that, and my left hip out of alignment before that. I learned that I have a simple skeletal anomaly, a slight backward rotation of the left side of my pelvis, pulling on my alignment from the waist down. This simple tweak in my anatomy has made me more susceptible to strain and injury from repetitive movement and impact and has shown me just how interconnected our bodies are. I made the choice to stop running purely out of body awareness: This simply was not good for me, and my body was telling me so, with abundant clarity. An injury from more than 10 years ago continues to teach me about cause and effect, about embracing what I cannot change, and about looking at myself with compassion and praise for what I can do, rather than blame for what does not come easily. This is where my yoga practice comes into play.

My unique physical experience is perfect simply because it exists.

I took my first yoga class in high school, conveniently around the same time that I first injured my hip. It wasn’t gym class, measuring my ability and proficiency against an impersonal standard. This was a safe and encouraging space in which we could do what we were built to do—it felt exactly right. This class set in motion for me more than a decade of exploration, of learning to build yoga into my life in a way that was natural and sustainable rather than forcefully implemented, like so much of what I did in the name of “exercise." In those 10 years, I learned simple but important things about my body and was able to understand my physical experience more deeply, which allowed me to accept and embrace my limitations and anomalies right along with my strengths and successes. I learned that my unique physical experience is perfect simply because it exists.

I’m sure we all have a story about how yoga helped us quell a fear or reexamine a doubt or conquer a limitation, because that really is its way. But how do we field the struggle of those doubts and limitations, land in acceptance and confidence and gratitude over and over again? How do we quiet the voices and let go? How do we avoid the gnawing urge to compare ourselves to someone we think is doing it “better”?

1. Fake it like it’s a mantra.

I started by refusing to let the words come out. There’s that saying: “Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become actions,” and so on… The first habit to create and enforce is rejecting the negative self-commentary. Actively remind yourself that you’re doing it right simply because you’re doing it. Every time you hear yourself start to criticize or second guess, meet those thoughts with something kind. For example:

  • “I love how I feel in this pose.”
  • “I’m doing it right just by doing it.”
  • “If I feel it, I’m in it.”

Keep repeating your mantra until your impulse is to praise and cheer yourself on, not to question or put yourself down. Actively affirm yourself until you wholeheartedly believe it. In short: Fake it 'til you make it. Then keep at it.

2. Listen to your body, then fight for it.

I wound up seeing a chiropractor when my hip and low back problems got to be too much, and she found my rotated left side in an X-ray (for years we’d assumed it was just sciatica—who knew a hip could do that?!). Armed with this knowledge, I was able to craft a practice that supported my body rather than wrestling with and injuring it more. I learned to pay attention to how my body felt not just in my practice on the mat but in everything I did. I make accommodations and give it support. I focus on strengthening, not diminishing with criticism. Yoga isn’t a “play through the pain” kind of sport, after all. It’s deeply personal, able to be molded and altered, and it’s open to your interpretation. Listen to your sensations the way you listen to a close and trusted friend, and let them guide your practice rather than trying to force and confine it.

3. Give yourself permission to just say f*ck it.

At a certain point, it’s OK to just tell those worrying little voices to shush and to give yourself the permission to let go of any reservation. I remember being cripplingly nervous during my yoga teacher training at the thought of people looking so directly and unforgivingly at my body while I demonstrated postures because I was intimidated by the idea of being on display like that. I’m no athlete, I told myself. My poses weren’t magazine-cover material, and I was sure my awkwardness was apparent in my teaching. I felt so out of my league. I wondered what I could possibly be thinking, becoming a teacher. It took me awhile to believe that I belonged there, teaching others, modeling postures and giving advice and adjustments and support. Even if I knew it to be true, I had to feel it. It wasn’t until I granted the permission to myself to let go, to embody my teaching, to own my practice and my body as a whole, that I felt free of the doubts. That’s the secret right there: The permission comes from within—there’s no magical external force that swoops in to bestow it. It is entirely within your control to just say f*ck it and release your reservations. Take that power and run with it.

I still catch myself having those negative thoughts sometimes—none of us are immune, after all. Compassion and self-acceptance are neither sciences nor finite destinations, but I can feel my own starting to waver when I let myself forget to make them a priority. If the root of the word yoga, and of the practice of yoga, is the same as "to yoke," to join together, then a core practice of yoga must be to find unity within the self.

The first step in any union is to love and respect, and when we make it a priority to cultivate and nurture that love and respect for ourselves, the practice of yoga becomes one of true celebration.

Tagged under: yoga, exercise, Practice