Yoga: Do I need to get better at being bad at it?

After a few years of doing yoga in the mid-aughts, I mostly gave it up. My excuse? I’d moved to a new state. I was busy building a new life, and didn’t have the energy to seek out new teachers and a new studio. I still dabbled with yoga at home, but my self-directed sessions became shorter and lazier over the years, petering out to once-in-blue moon stretching stints in my living room. I’ve recently begun to dip my toe into yoga again and am struck by how different it feels now that I’ve become so much better at being bad at things.

When I practiced yoga over a decade ago, I wanted to be good at it. Even though I would have denied this at the time, I wanted to be a star pupil, both to please my (utterly lovely) teachers and to prove to myself that I could excel in this new, and, for me, improbable endeavor. Despite the fact that my yoga teachers assiduously taught self-acceptance, and encouraged us to take things at our own pace, at that point in my life, I was more or less driven by a self-improvement mindset. Back then — in my mid and late 30s — I longed to become a better version of myself before (I told myself) it was too late, before the clock wound down and I was pushed irrevocably into a rut of aging mediocrity and decline.

Perhaps the most perverse aspect of this was that I actually did “know” that, in order to become “good” at yoga in the way I was being taught, I needed to abandon my fixation on achievement. My teachers had been perfectly clear that it was neither skillful nor in the spirit of yoga to engage in this sacred practice from a place of ego. They further explained that fixating on how good (or bad) one was at yoga — being either self-aggrandizing or shaming — was itself an expression of ego, pure and simple.

I was, and have always been, a VERY GOOD STUDENT. I could hear my teachers’ words and understand them intellectually. I could even repeat them quite convincingly to others. But in my heart of hearts, I was not so much living from a place of such accepting equanimity as aspiring to do so. In short, I very much wanted to get good at not being good at yoga.

Of course, this paradox doesn’t just apply to yoga, but to many activities of life, perhaps even to life as a whole. I had, for example, also “known” that there was something out of whack about my focus on becoming a better meditator. I knew and believed — again, from an intellectual point of view — that the sort of spiritual unfolding that mattered to me could never be had through ever more reaching, struggling, self-denial and hard work. But the impulse to achieve through effort was so strong in my younger self that I got stuck in a weird loop of striving to become someone who did not strive.

I am, then, living proof that one can “know” the folly of running faster and faster in order to get to a place of rest without being able to stop. As I said, I “knew” that I was doing the thing my wise teachers urged me not to do: running after a kind of peace and acceptance that could only be discovered through abandoning the hunt. But, like an addict who wants to quit without actually being ready to put down the cigarette, instead, I got very busy with more mental and physical activity.

But something has shifted and now, every other day or so, I roll out my old yoga mat on the smooth wooden floor while the rest of my house remains cocooned in sleep. What I am discovering is that I have neither mastered the art of non-striving nor stepped fully out of the self-improvement mindset. But I do have more humor and acceptance about my failures in these areas. The paradox that had ensnared me has turned out to be even more complicated than I’d thought.

The upshot is that, in accepting my failure to be fully accepting of my failures, I seem to have found an even richer level of acceptance. As I fall inelegantly into warrior two, I may still experience a desire to be better at the flow — stronger, more agile, more like her or like him — but I no longer hold it against myself that I am capable of such longings. I can accept the larger reality of myself as someone who is not always good at accepting the way things are. I do not think I can do any better than this, but nor do I think I need to. And this makes all the difference.

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