Off Your Mat

Bringing yoga off your mat into your life, one pose at a time.


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The Strongest Pose

Amy-Manta-I

I’m a fan of the woman pictured above.  She caught my attention in 2012 doing a photo shoot with plankton eating whale sharks in the Philippines. Now she has appeared again, popping up on my yahoo home page, floating in lotus pose above a giant endangered manta ray.

This visual act of beauty and bravery is begging the observer to pay attention. And we should. These activists are using yoga to send an important message.

That is one reason why I am sharing the picture here.  Sharks and rays are endangered. They are over fished and their numbers are dwindling. It’s difficult to see these well documented predators as victims and in need of our help. They do not appeal to our empathetic instincts. In short, sharks are the public relations nightmare of the animal kingdom. Regardless of their violent reputation, they are an important part of our ecosystem and need protection.

The other reason I shared this picture is because it draws me back to a very specific moment.

In the 1990’s, I was part of a small group of backpackers making our way through the Australian outback in a crowded Land Rover.

red center

Gathered at Australia’s Red Center

Setting up camp next to our vehicle

Setting up camp next to our vehicle

On one leg of our tour, we crossed the 1700 miles from Adelaide to Perth across the Nullarbor Plain. The Nullarbor is a flat, almost treeless, arid area between southern and western Australia, located on the Great Australian Bight coast.

I took this photo on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain with a disposable camera.

I took this photo on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain with a disposable camera.

I snapped this photo on the other side of the tree pictured above, peeking over the 200 foot drop of The Great Australian Bight.

I snapped this photo on the other side of the tree pictured above, peeking over the 200 foot drop of The Great Australian Bight.

We had stopped on a deserted peninsula in Southern Australia and were wading into the waters of the Indian Ocean. The closest town was about an hour away – and when I say town, I mean gas station. We were up to our hips in the clear, crystal blue water when a large dark form appeared, swimming about 20 yards away from us. Two of my fellow travelers grabbed their snorkel gear and headed straight for it. I headed for dry land.

Exploring the peninsula.

As much as I am a supporter of the shark’s cause, I’m terribly afraid of them. I’m not interested in swimming with them, photographing them or bumping into them under any circumstance.

Turns out it was a manta ray.  It stayed in the shallows, letting them observe it closely for about 15 minutes, then it disappeared back into the deep. When my friends returned to the ankle deep water, where I had staked my claim, they were exhilarated. They talked excitedly about the connection they felt with the creature and the gentleness of the giant fish. I was so excited for them.

But never, even for a moment, have I regretted my decision to leave that dark looming figure alone.

I love the ocean and adventure, however I will not subject myself to that level of vulnerability. The probability of that large swimming shadow being a Great White was a little too high for my taste.

Which brings me back to the amazing picture of the woman and the manta ray. She is so obviously vulnerable. It reminded me of a quote my sister brought home from a yoga class, “You are your strongest when you have made yourself vulnerable, because in that moment you are taking a risk for what you want.”

The essence of that statement is captured in the photograph of Amy Ippoliti and the manta ray. She took an enormous risk to raise our awareness. Her drive to bring attention to the plight of these massive animals gave her the strength to be vulnerable.

So many times we look at vulnerability as a weakness, when really it might be the strongest pose we can take.

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Yoga Practice 101: The Competitive Pose

I have a freakishly competitive nature. It will lie dormant for months then suddenly erupt, usually during a benign activity that doesn’t require the intensity I bring to it. Once, after a game of dominoes, my good friend Bob said he would rather break his own arms than play with me again. Others (including my husband) have shared similar sentiments, thankfully without the violent imagery.

 I spent 12 years in sales. There, the competitive spirit is encouraged and rewarded. I was in competition with my team mates, other offices, divisions and states. Not to mention the competitors. The corporate language gave value to blood sport. We were encouraged to kill our numbers. We were also reminded in meetings, with heavy handed analogies, that sharks die if they stop moving. So, I moved. I really hustled.

Until I didn’t want to anymore. I grew weary of chasing an ever growing quota. As competitive as I am, that is not all I am. So I made a change. I got my teaching degree and went to teach High School English. Turns out, competition comes in many forms. Drop a competitive person into any environment and they will find a competition. This is not a bad thing.  My last year at the school, the seniors voted me and the math teacher “Co-Teachers of the Year.”  I’m proud of that.

The people I practice yoga with include marathon runners, college athletes, financiers and CEOs to name a few. These are people that deal with intense competition in other parts of their life. They are not shrinking violets. Yet, as far as I can tell, none of us go to the studio to compete with each other. Speaking for myself, my time on my mat is for me.  If I am taking on a challenge, it is the challenge of an asana and it doesn’t matter what anyone else in the room is doing. Although, it wasn’t always like that for me.

When I first starting practicing yoga, I would have an internal conniption fit if I couldn’t perfect a pose. I was constantly comparing myself to my classmates. I saw it as a failure to take a modification. Forget taking child’s pose, I was going to push through my muscle fatigue. Before I built my upper body strength, I was furious that I had to use my knees during the push up in chaturanga. Don’t even get me started on my epic journey into crow. It’s hilarious looking back at myself. Did I expect to jump in at an advanced level?

I guess I did.

It makes me wonder, where else have I done that?  When have I grown frustrated with something because I wasn’t (what I perceived to be) the best at it?  The answer to that is a long and sometimes frighteningly petty, list.

I ask the question, not to beat myself up, but to make a point. Competition is imprinted in our human DNA. Competition is why people play sports and have game nights.  It is why people excel in their professions and hobbies.  It is why the phrase “the thrill of the hunt” was coined.  Competition is where we learn how far we can jump and dream.  Our survival as a species was successful because we are competitive.

But let’s face it.  I’m not out on the Serengeti trying to outsmart a lioness. Surviving, for a suburban yogini, is pretty easy.

That doesn’t make the competitive spirit go away and it shouldn’t. Competition is a good thing. We learn from it. Because in competition, there is a chance you might lose. Our life’s lessons are written in our losses. There have been some amazing trajectories born from significant setbacks.

Let’s go back to my first hyper competitive attempts at yoga.  My failure there was really only in my head.  But it was a real failure in my head.  I was missing out on the true nature of the practice because I was so busy trying to “keep up” with my neighbors.

There are many moments in life that we should relish the opportunity to jump into a competition.  There are other times that our drive should take a backseat to what is important in the moment.

The trick is figuring out which moment is which.

Obviously, in the case of Bob and the dominoes, I might have made the wrong choice.