Bronze mirror with the head of the Medusa, Greek, South Italy, 500 - 480 B.C.
One day while carrying out some business, the Mullah Nasruddin was asked to show his identification. He directly pulled out a mirror from his pocket and soberly studied his reflection for a long time. At length he exclaimed, “Yes, that is me!”
I have to say that meeting this challenge is the by far the best thing I have done with my life in a very long time. When I signed up to attend 100 bikram yoga classes in 100 days I told myself that I was performing an experiment. I also reasoned that, since I am something of a couch potato, I would never make it into a studio to perform difficult physical contortions while sweating profusely at 105 degree for 90 minutes at a time unless I tricked myself into it. And once I put my name up there on the public board, where students who have taken on the challenge mark their progress each day, it was simply too embarrassing not to show up for class every day. Other people had done it. Why couldn’t I?
When I began the challenge, at least five other people were completing their last 20 days or so, and shortly thereafter two other students declared their intention to do it, too. It seemed that I had lots of company and that what I was doing was not so very remarkable. The yogis ahead of me, some of whom were teachers, finished their 100 days. There were then just two of us–I and a woman who began her challenge on the same day as I did. We’d meet in the say “18!” and then “19!”. She stopped coming. It was okay because another woman who regularly came put her name up on the board. She dropped away, too. Then I was alone–but not really, since a small posse of yogis took at least once class a day, and plenty of other regulars showed up four or five times a week. Their accomplishment seemed greater than mine. A number of people began asking me “what day are you on now?” and seemed genuinely impressed. I hadn’t yet finished and could not yet say with utter certainty that I would manage to finish. Congratulations will not be in order until I have ended my 101st class in a row.
But it no longer matters to me how many days in a row I have been coming to class, although I do still get a small charge when I mark off each day. Indeed, I’m looking forward to not counting. I guess you could say that my point of view has shifted. Much more important that being able to say that I’ve met the challenge is the experience of practicing every day, whether I want to or not.
Paradoxically, I like the way I feel in general even though I don’t always feel good when I’m practicing. Some days I can’t seem to balance. On other days my stomach feels cramped, or packed, or bloated, which makes Pada-hastana particularly uncomfortable. On other days I can’t seem to stop yawning, or my legs are tired and weak. Sometimes the heat bothers me more than at other times. None of it matters.
Kaspar van den Wigngaard
As one of my teachers, the amazing Kaspar van den Wijngaard, told me: “When you commit yourself to a daily practice you learn to stop worrying about how well you did on any one particular day and to focus more on the process.” Or something like that. I can’t remember his exact words. Kaspar has taught me to divest from the need to be “good” or perfect all the time. There’s no capturing the moment, no saying, “I’ve done it, I own that,” or “I am x or y because I can do this or that.” One does one’s best every day, and that is what one is doing.
Remarkably modest and sweet-tempered, Kaspar is simultaneously an especially exacting and forgiving teacher. He encourages each student to work from where she or he happens to be at the time. He saw me leaning back on my elbows in Supta-Vajrasana and said, “You can put your head on the floor and lean all the way back.” I had it in my mind that I could NOT do that pose and found the suggestion irritating. Still, I dutifully laid back and discovered that I could indeed to the minor backbend, and get a nice stretch in my stomach at the same time.
Kaspar has been teaching at the studio for the month of February, and I’m really going to miss him when he leaves. When he first got here, he ran us through the postures without mercy, it seemed, allowing us much shorter breaks than we had become used to. But we–I am not the only one–adjusted to his tempo and now like it better. We’ve gotten better over time, through diligence, consistency, commitment.
Why has this been the very best thing that I have done with my life in a very long time? Not simply because I have developed a discipline and proven to myself that I could do something that I didn’t know I could do. Not simply because I have gotten a lot stronger and more flexible. Not simply because I no longer have the pain in my back that I used to have when I lay flat on it in sivasana. Not simply because I am far more toned throughout my torso and not simply because my jeans fit way better than before. Not simply because I have made a lot of new friends and found a happy, supportive, and healthy community in Pittsburgh. Not simply because the light and the heat have made this winter way more bearable. Not simply because I’m probably getting taller.
All of these reasons help to make daily practice of Bikram yoga one of the best things I have ever done. But much more important to me than all of these reasons put together has been the daily moving meditation. Yes, my body is changing. But what is far more profound and interesting to me is the way that my mind is changing. In a word, I am more courageous than I was before. I’m much more willing to face things, issues, problems, predicaments, life-changes that scare me. This does not mean that I am not still frightened. What it means is that I am facing, acknowledging, dealing with my fear. I used to flee from it. My body is stronger, but so is my mind.
What am I afraid of? All kinds of things. Getting older, getting fatter, getting weaker, losing my memory, losing people I love. I’m afraid of facing the world in which the people who I thought were my friends turn out to be quite unfriendly and mostly indifferent to me. I’m afraid of letting go of the identity that I’ve clutched around me like a cloak, an impenetrable shield, a space-suit for the past twenty-odd years. I’m afraid of facing myself and not knowing who I am or what I really want or what I am going to do about it. All of these things.
I am walking away from the path that I have been on for a very long time. The old road is well sign-posted, and the signs say “Climb this mountain!” “Cross this bridge!” “Cut and bundle into sheaves this field of wheat!” They also say “When you succeed at this task you will be GOOD!” and “If you fail at this task you will be WORTHLESS.” The path is old and rutted and bloody and lonely. You must assess everyone you meet on the path and quickly decide if they will help or hinder your progress. You cannot trust anyone fully. If you leave the path and walk into uncharted territory, most of the people you met on the old road will forget about you, as though you never existed.
For the first time in a long while I am actually acknowledging the fear, as well as the grief that comes with letting go of a long attachment to something that was not really who or how I wanted to be. I am letting myself consider possibilities. I am following my nose. Next week, for example, I will go through a week-long training at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Pittsburgh so that I can work directly with women in need. I am looking for meaningful work. I am looking for dignity.
I am facing my fear of being a very bad painter even though painting is something I have always wanted to do. I am facing my fear of not living up to my parents’ expectations. My fear of not living up to my graduate advisor’s expectations. I didn’t have any mentors at my last job so I don’t worry about not living up any of my former co-workers expectations. But I am facing my fear of not knowing what the next job will be. Whatever it is, I will not make the mistake of confusing it with my identity.
This will sound cliché because it is: I am facing my fear of myself. It’s not quite right to say that I don’t know who I am, since I don’t believe in absolute selves or intrinsic identities. I don’t believe in the soul, or in reincarnation, or heaven or hell. So I finally don’t believe in not knowing who I am. What I am dealing with is the challenge of letting go of the space-suit, the rigid identity and the insecurity that kept the stiff paper-board self in place. The challenge of being a being rather than a doing.
Do you know? Every day after Bikram I lie on my side in a semi-fetal position with my arms around myself until I feel a sense of love for myself. I say, “I am here and I love,” and I wait until I feel connected with whatever it is, love, warmth, self-acceptance, gratitude. It makes a difference. Once a day, put your arms around yourself and be present with yourself with a kind-heartedness. Try it.
Here is another story about identity and the Mullah Nasruddin, from Idries Shah, The Sufis.
Once, the people of The City invited Mullah Nasruddin to deliver a khutba. When he got on the minbar (pulpit), he found the audience was not very enthusiastic, so he asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” The audience replied “NO”, so he announced “I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about” and he left. The people felt embarrassed and called him back again the next day. This time when he asked the same question, the people replied “YES” So Mullah Nasruddin said, “Well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time” and he left. Now the people were really perplexed. They decided to try one more time and once again invited the Mullah to speak the following week. Once again he asked the same question – “Do you know what I am going to say?” Now the people were prepared and so half of them answered “YES” while the other half replied “NO”. So Mullah Nasruddin said “The half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the other half” and he left!