A few years ago, when I first became enamored with yoga, I decided to attend my first weekend workshop.
In order to get to the studio on time for the first night’s session, I left work early. I’d changed out of my business-casual-Friday-attire and was wearing some sort of yoga outfit and my lime green plaid plastic Keen shoes. I stood by the water fountain to fill my bottle, and fielded questions from co-workers. Several of them were about the (perceived) ugliness of my shoes, but most were curious about the experience.
“You’re going to do yoga ALL WEEKEND?” someone said. “Yes, she’s really good at yoga,” another person (who’d never seen me practice, nor understood what ‘being good at yoga’ might mean) responded.
For a brief moment, at the call center water cooler, I was a yoga goddess. Crazy shoes, eco-friendly water bottle- I was poised for success. I’m sure I felt excited and optimistic as I drove off to my first-ever yoga workshop.
Three hours later, I was in a different world.
Visiting a new yoga studio for the first time can be, in itself, an intimidating experience. For a shy, insecure, or new-to-yoga person, going for a workshop is a special sort of social torture, not unlike attending some other high school’s prom. Everyone knows each other. The air is thick with full-body hugs, inside jokes (like, inexplicably,”Prana Butt!”), and the scent of Luon. You are wearing the wrong thing, you don’t know where to put your stuff, and suddenly you are sure you forgot to put on deodorant.
That first yoga workshop was a rite of passage for me. Had I been told what I would have to endure, I’m sure I would have skipped it. The Friday night class was the worst- we were forced to pair up into partners. As almost everyone in the room had completed teacher training, I was easily the most clueless person there, and my partner didn’t bother to hide her irritation at the fact. If I could have died then and saved her the frustration of having to deal with my yoga ignorance, I would have done it.
With two more days to go it did get better: I met some people who reminded me that I wasn’t a total loser who deserved to be hanged with a yoga strap. I did my first handstands and got closer to full Hanumanasana than ever before.
Despite these successes, by Sunday afternoon, I had hit what I’ve come to know as the Workshop Wall. I was totally exhausted, physically and emotionally. It’s not easy to spend so much time with strangers, even when they are kind and supportive. To be smiling and friendly after hours of challenging physical activity is hard enough. There was also, for me, the additional challenge of being reminded that I really wasn’t awesome at this yoga thing. I just felt stupid in my body. Like, why couldn’t I do this stuff? Why didn’t my body just “get it”?
Something about this prolonged intense physical activity coupled with the intensely intimate social cocoon of the workshop environment triggered the absolute worst in me, emotionally. I fell back into the ruts of depression and negativity. The narrative in my head sounded something like this (warning- it’s mean): “You’re too old/heavy/ugly/stupid. You’ll never be able to do these things. Nobody even wants you here.”
The Workshop Wall: bricks of physical exhaustion, dehydration, possibly pain and soreness, mortared together with comparison, insecurity, self-criticism, self-doubt, and even self-loathing.
Now, it’s been a few years, and I’ve gotten stronger emotionally and physically, and since I’ve been practicing with this South Florida community for a while, now I more often find myself on the “inside” of the “inside joke” crowd, though I do my best to remember how lousy it feels on the other side, and bring people in as much as possible.
Still. Still. Still. The Workshop Wall exists for me:
Last weekend I went to my first-ever AcroYoga “Solar Immersion” Workshop with Daniel Scott and Chris Loebsack at Trio Yoga in Miami. I’ve only been practicing AcroYoga for three months and this was a total whim. In order to “qualify” to attend the workshop, I had to get some of my skills up to speed (check out the pre-requisites here). In a few days, with some help from a friend and teacher (we’ll call him Jake, he’ll be in the story later), I learned to do several things I’d never done before, but I knew I was weak in some areas.
I made the impulse purchase a few days beforehand and then began to wonder why I’d done it. The workshop was on my birthday weekend, historically a time of intense depression for me, and I’d chosen to put myself in a physically challenging environment, with strangers who were all going to be more skilled than I was. Yep, Jake would be there on the second day, but until then I’d be on my own with a bunch of people I didn’t know at all (not too long ago, this would have been completely impossible for me. See this post.)
Even worse, when I considered it, was the fact that AcroYoga (maybe yoga in general?) appeals to me so much because it gives me a second chance at one of the saddest parts of my life- my adolescence. I’d always wanted to be a gymnast, and I envied the cool girls who were strong and flexible and popular and wore patterned tights and stuff. I’d say they were sexier, but at 13, that’d be weird. You know what I mean, though. Hell, I envied all of the girls who were able to do any kind of physical activity. In my mind, I was ugly, unhappy, uncoordinated and unpopular.*
So basically, guys, I’d set myself up to relive the hardest time of my life- a time when I was bullied and suicidal- with the additional handicap of being the weakest practitioner, in a strange environment, with a bunch of people (think of them as the Cool Kids) who all knew each other well. Happy Birthday, sucker! Welcome to the Wall.
I arrived at the workshop five minutes early (which, to my mind, is like, 20 minutes late) and came in the door feeling like a hot yoga mess. Everyone else was there already being all friendly with each other, and it took me a quick minute to check in with myself and say, “You know this is okay. You’re not an outsider, you just don’t know them yet.”
AcroYoga doesn’t let you be a stranger for long- it’s all about intimacy, communication and connection with others- so before too long I was finding my social feet and feeling pretty good. For the first day and a half I was able to keep up with almost everything without a problem- I’m relatively strong and flexible and have a decent yoga foundation.
After lunch on the second day, though, I could spy the Wall heaving into sight on the horizon. I’d been acting as a base (the person on the bottom who “flies” others) for most of the day, and this was challenging for several reasons- first, it played into my physical insecurity. Here’s my (mean, irrational) mental dialogue around that: You’re too fat, you’re too butch, you’ll never be small and delicate and you suck at backbends.** Second: dude, have you seen what bases have to do? Go watch the video I linked above. It’s hard work! Third: I really wanted to fly, and was feeling sorry for myself that I wasn’t getting to do what I wanted to do.
We’d also just gotten to Barrel Rolls. I’d flown this a few times with Jake, but basing is different- and I still felt absolutely confused about foot placement and hand-switching. My quads were exhausted and quivering and now I was going to ask them to support a person who weighs almost as much as me on one leg out to the side.
I watched the demonstration with glazed eyes. I was up against the Wall. I wasn’t the only one- the energy in the group was subdued and we were all a little confused. I tried to keep up with the demonstration, asked a question, watched intently and nodded at the appropriate places. I knew my mask was slipping, though, when I looked up and saw the two instructors looking at me, whispering to each other, and looking back again. A few minutes later, Chris came over. “Are you okay?” she asked. Ugh. I was becoming the weakest link. Earlier that day, Daniel had given me some encouragement as well. “You’re doing awesome!” he enthused. I confessed I felt I was over my head, and he denied it vehemently at the time… but now I’d hit the Wall, and I knew there wasn’t much I could do.
Back to small groups to try Barrel Rolling. I did the best I could and I really don’t believe I embarrassed myself with my group (who were kind, supportive, and reinforced me in every way they could)- but I was starting to feel it. You suck, I thought to myself. You’ve got no right to be here.
This time, though, I understood. I visualized myself against an impossibly tall wall, and felt compassionate. Of course you feel like sh*t, I thought. You’re exhausted. You’re surrounded by people you don’t know who have been doing this for years. You’re going to fall back into patterns of social anxiety, insecurity and depression, but it’s not going to last. You’re okay.
At the end of the day, I gathered my stuff and prepared to leave. I was drained and emotional and just needed to get the hell out of there, but I hugged my new friends and thanked the teachers. I said goodbye to Jake with a minimum of words. “Okay, bye.” He hasn’t known me very long- three months- so he tends to think of me, I would guess, as a gregarious and exuberant person. Sorry, buddy, I thought. This is the best I can do right now. I dragged my carcass to the car and cradled my face in my hands, preparing for the two hour drive. Come on. You can do this.
I’m always pretty honest with you guys, so I’ll tell you: I cried on the drive home. It wasn’t all self-pity, though. I felt exhaustion, and grief for my life over the past year. I felt the weight of being alone on my birthday, unsupported by a relationship. I felt the weight of thirty-six years, twenty of them full of violent cycles of depression, anxiety, and self-loathing. And then- this is sweet- I felt compassion and love for myself. I was proud of myself for what I’d done. I was against the Wall, but now I knew the Wall was on wheels and rolling away slowly.
I was about an hour away from home and feeling much better when my phone rang- Jake, unexpectedly calling me. “I just wanted to see if you were okay,” he said. “You seemed really quiet when you left.”
In the brief pause before I began speaking, I saw this post unfold in my future. I knew I wanted to share this with you, if you wanted to take the time to read it. Because if I’m hitting the Wall, I think maybe someone else is too.
For the nice guy on the other end of the phone though, who didn’t sign up to read (literally) 2000 words of my life: Reader’s Digest version. “I got really tired,” I said, “…and it makes me feel drained and kind of emotional. But I’m really okay.”
I’m really okay.
*Though after a time, I made a nice niche for myself with the art class flannel-wearing alternative crowd. I had these sweet plaid Doc Martens. Why do I like plaid shoes so much?