I, myself, would consider it a red flag of the highest urgency were someone to ever tell me I was good at (yoga). That’s the moment I would know that I my life had gone off the rails for the sake of my ego.
I’m a big fan of yoga. My current fascination with it is only the latest of many exercise disciplines I have embraced over the years, some which I also still do. But yoga is a relatively recent addition to my list of regular activities.
Just one thing though: I really suck at it.
My abilities are so rough that I wouldn’t ever think of attending an actual “yoga class” — you know, like with other people — simply because I’m certain I would bring the entire class to a screeching halt while the instructor desperately tried to figure out just what the hell was wrong with me. To avoid that scene, I converted a room in my house into a yoga studio, and follow along to yoga videos on a wall-mounted tv.
I have been “practicing” yoga for 4+ years now, and I can still only do about half of the poses and transitions that are called for in the typical beginner online video. Most of the rest are barely recognizable attempts at what is being demonstrated by my erstwhile virtual instructor. None of this has actually changed much from Day 1. Yet, in spite of it all, I’m proud of myself for this accomplishment.
About now you may be wondering how I can label a complete lack of progress after 4 years an “accomplishment”, so let me explain. First of all, on an average week I get 2 yoga sessions in. On a better-than-average week, that number skyrockets to 3. As any enlightened “yogi” (the unofficial title for an accomplished yoga instructor) will tell you, it’s nearly impossible to make any progress at yoga unless you’re doing 5 or 6 practices a week. Yeah, that ain’t gonna happen. I’ve got a pretty full non-yoga life which includes other forms of activity too.
This made me realize that people who are very accomplished at yoga — you know, the ones that nail all the poses and glide effortlessly from horizontal to vertical, and then to inverted, without even mussing their hair — haven’t got a non-yoga life. Their life is — by necessity — yoga-centric.
I have another kind of life. That means (according to the yogis) that I will never be “accomplished” (in the way that most use that word) at this thing called yoga. And, that I must accept staying at my current level forever and ever. Interestingly, I’m ok with that.
You see, my “accomplishment” is that I continue to show up after 4 years regardless of the complete lack of appreciable improvement in my ability to perform beginner yoga. What I have realized is that just showing up for yoga (however, whenever, and wherever that happens) provides a benefit to my life that is alone and apart from whatever mastery of the moves I exhibit. Realizing benefit from dedicated effort is the very definition of “accomplishment”. Just because that benefit is not observable by others doesn’t diminish its value in my mind.
This is where so many of us go astray. The ego loves the notion that more is better, and attempts to apply it to nearly everything. But does the benefit of yoga actually increase with the degree of mastery? Surprisingly, not much. In fact, there is the distinct potential for diminishing your quality of life for the sake of mastery. Those who are making gains in their yoga prowess might want to take a hard look at their lives and ask themselves what other aspects of a full and exciting existence are they sacrificing for this drive to excel at yoga. There are, without question, some of those.
I get that it is indeed compelling to want to be great at yoga. Watching those who are exceptional at it will bring out that competitiveness in just about anybody, and make you want to rise to some level of excellence no matter what the cost. That is, at least, until you actually know the cost.
The price for this par excellence is 6 or more yoga practices a week (yes, the really-driven often engage in multiple practices in the same day), plus all of the other lifestyle changes that are requisite to the goal. Add to this the inevitable intensive or specialized training courses, private instruction, and the bill for all of the above, and you have at least a glimpse at the sacrifices involved. What other aspects of your life must be shelved to make way for this new focus. Is yoga actually able to replace the joys those other pursuits bring, or even contribute in any way to them? Being great at yoga doesn’t guarantee you a better life if you’re only goal is to be great at yoga.
Then, consider that the vast majority of lithe and dexterous yoga studs you hope to emulate are rarely older than their early-thirties (and likely began their yoga journey in their twenties), and have a gymnast’s build from birth. If you are, instead, over 40, not height/weight proportional, with a sedentary job, and lacking the crucial genetics, you’ll have some huge deficits to overcome before any real headway toward mastery is made. That’s in addition to that which the genetically and chronologically blessed must pass. One or more of those challenges might actually be complete deal-breakers for your dreams of yoga dominance, or, at least, make the goal exponentially less attractive.
If all that gives you pause may I suggest, as an alternative to yoga superiority, that you consider just sucking at it like me. Making the conscious choice to suck at yoga — defined as “doing it with no expectation of mastery or even improvement in its execution” — is actually one of the more enlightened choices you can make. Sadly, the human ego will never accept that as a rational choice. The ego’s preference would be to either go all-in for yoga bad-assness to the detriment of other life-pursuits, or quit the practice immediately upon learning how hopeless you are at it.
I include in my use of the word “accomplishment” how much worse I would be — now 4 years on — if I had never begun yoga when I did. How much worse even at yoga — not to mention life — would I be if I were just starting today as someone 4 years older and 4 years poorer in general physical preparedness? You begin to see why I consider my 4+ years at this — with no measurable or observable progress to speak of — an accomplishment.
If yoga is your life — as in your passion, it can also impose trade-offs to that life, but since passion is a contributor to its overall quality, it is a choice each of us can make consciously. The real danger is our inability to often recognize when we are pursuing a passion versus when we are slavishly seeking satisfaction of the ego. Are you confident you know into which of those two categories your drive for yoga excellence falls? It’s not always easy to tell, but here’s a simple test:
If it’s truly a passion, the sacrifices you’ll make could be an acceptable trade-off. After all, we routinely make sacrifices and compromises for our passions in life. But passions can be identified by the simple fact that they are enjoyable just for the experience of them, and apart from any mastery. It’s really a passion for you only if you can answer “yes” to the following question: “Would I still be driven to devote my time, energy, and money to this pursuit if I knew no one else would ever observe the outcome of it, or even know about it?” If you can honestly answer yes to that question, then by all means yoga-up! It is you the yoga world needs to lead schlubs like me. Just realize that even passions exact a cost for their pursuit; time, money, and energy committed to the discipline of it is time, money, and energy not devoted to other things which you also value.
If you can’t answer yes to that question, then yoga, for you, is probably (definitely) a compulsion of the ego, and that means you have somehow tied your self-worth to the goal of mastering it. That’s not fun or healthy, and it won’t end as a net gain to your life.
So, ask yourself why (or, if) you really want to be great at yoga? I, myself, am relishing my yoga “schlub-ness”, and would consider it a red flag of the highest urgency were someone to ever tell me I was good at it. That’s the moment I would know that I have gone off the rails of my life for the sake of my yoga-ego.
We are all susceptible to getting sucked into dreams of virtuosity at some pursuit by our ego rather than passion. Since yoga is definitely not my passion, I should have quit long ago. Or, given up far too much of my non-yoga life in pursuit of recognition and bragging rights. Instead, I’ll continue to be motivated only by the fact that — despite my poor showing to the outside world — I am contributing to my life in ways that matter to me the most. Both on the mat and off.
So, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is this: in order to consistently suck at yoga, you have to consistently engage in yoga. But only as much as fits the life you really want off the mat — and never to the point of mastery unless yoga is your life’s calling. For the rest of us, our first job is to make sure we always suck at yoga. Permanently.