Only recently, I looked around and realized: many people who come to yoga – and I am one of them – are A-type personalities. They are quick-thinking, efficient, ambitious, often successful, and used to being good at what they do. I have often wondered whether this personality type stems from nature or nurture? Some of us are naturally fiery, outgoing and have an unquenchable thirst for life. But I can’t deny that being brought up in a society where hard work and successful performance are highly commended and recommended has molded us all a certain way. Is the said personality type attracted by yoga? Yes and no. We have all heard that yoga relaxes you, puts things into perspective and teaches you to let go, little by little. It is exactly what the doctor prescribes for the overly ambitious. It is also true that yoga is about turning your gaze inwards. It is not about looking around to check what the person next to you is doing, and certainly not about comparing. But guess what happens when a lot of A-type personalities practice together in the same room? Exactly. The very thing we thought ought to put some distance between ourselves and our hamster wheel, becomes yet another thing we have to be good at – even excel at.
As I took my first steps into the world of yoga, the practice itself was a revelation to me. With 20 years of dancing literally on my back (because my back was hurting), it was the first time I heard a teacher say: “Listen to your body. If you are tired today, there is option 1. If you feel that you can go deeper, this is option 2. If you feel that this is plenty, maybe backpedal a bit. If you can’t breathe fully, then you may have asked too much of yourself today.” Revelation. I felt like I wanted to put up my hand and ask for clarification: “Really? I don’t have to push myself and ignore the pain? I can ask myself what I need and then follow that intuition?” I could hardly believe it. I came from a black-and-white world where it was all about reaching the one ideal or die trying. Everything else was worth nothing. In yoga, it was no longer about fitting in or being good enough. It was simply about listening, giving an honest answer and then reacting with compassion.
I guess it is not surprising that once I started teaching, this became one of the one message I really wanted to convey. My classes can be vigorous and heat-building, but they are never about ignoring your limit. To this day I am suspicious of methods and teachers that tell students there is only one proper way to do a particular asana, practice or sequence. It is a valuable way, but it is not for me, as I believe it perpetuates the patterns of the A-type personality. Dangle a carrot in front of our nose and we will run full out until we get to that piece of vegetable. Even if we break our hind legs in the process. I can only speak for myself, but learning to slow down and observe, to recognize my limit has probably kept me healthy and injury-free all these years. And I’m certainly not one who asks little of herself.
I do have to admit that I am slightly two-faced here. You may hear me tell students to pace themselves, to respect the signals the body is giving them. I encourage them to investigate this feeling of inadequacy that spurs most of us on. And yet, I often don’t walk the talk. While I have no interest in pushing myself in my physical practice, my inner dialogue is still shaped by the urge to be good enough. Still motivated by the inner child that wants to be seen, accepted and loved, and thus will go to great lengths to achieve and stand out.
It is easy to compartmentalize here, easy to think: “Oh, I’ve truly absorbed this into my yoga practice. I have developed compassion for myself. Check. Done.” But what about outside your yoga practice? In my experience the feeling of never being good enough is almost ineradicable. And maybe not just for A-type personalities. You may think you have softened and ushered it out the front door, but it will come back and sneak in through the backyard.
Why am I telling you this? I’m telling you just in case you have heard me phrase instructions in class and thought that I have really integrated this lesson. Just in case you thought that I am really so relaxed and chill about life. Just in case you thought I was able to stand in front of the mirror and say to myself: “I am okay. I am good enough. I deserve love without working hard to deserve it.” Well, I am not able to say that. I constantly feel like I still need to work harder to deserve. Over the years, working with so many people, teachers and students, I have learned that this is one of our deep innate fears: not to be good enough. And I am telling you this, so you will believe me when I say: We are all in the same boat here. And it is safe for me to assume that the work never ends. “Much of spiritual life is self-accpetance, maybe all of it.” (Jack Kornfield)