My whole adult life, I’ve been a student of movement. I started in college with traditional aerobics classes and strength training. In those situations, the instruction was clear: do this as much (or as fast or as hard) as you can. Simple. Boom. Go.
Go all-out or go home. Black or white. This, my mind could grasp. And grasp it it did. Tight like a vise.
When I started taking more holistic, mind~body- focused classes, everything got fuzzy and gray-zy in a hurry. Starting with my first yoga class more than 20 years ago until just this morning in my vinyasa practice, my teachers are always tossing around little phrases like,
“Choose the level that’s right for you.”
“Find the variation on the pose that feels best right now.”
“Move in a way that is both challenging and healing.”
All these yoga teachers and Nia teachers and movement teachers tossing little grenades around that lodge in and then immediately explode in my tight mind.
“Choose the level that’s right for me”? What the Sam Hill is that?
My mind reels. (Poor thing is nostalgic for the black and white days of “go all out, period.”) The trouble, it turns out, is that crammed into my tight little mind are two voices (that’s not true, there is a teeming throng of voices in my mind but on this particular subject there are two): Lazy Daisy and Eager Beaver Overachiever.
When my teacher says “Find the variation that is best for you right now,” Lazy Daisy pipes right up. Lazy Daisy absolutely hates anything that is uncomfortable or difficult or awkward. She wants to take it easy. She is afraid of discomfort of any kind.
“Let’s just go easy,” she says. “Let’s just take a breath and…”
In two-tenths of a second, Eager B. Overachiever interrupts her. “C’mon! We can do more than this! No pain, no gain! More is better! Bigger is harder and harder is better! Arrrghh!” (Eager B. is a big fan of pirate noises.)
“Wait, hey, that feels like too much,” says Lazy Daisy. “The teacher says to move in a way that’s easy…”
“ ‘EaseFULL!’ ” says Eager Overachiever, “not easy. And she says to challenge ourselves! So let’s go deeper and do more! ARrrgh!” (E.B.O. also loves exclamation points!)
“But we hurt our foot (hip/knee/ankle/shoulder) is injured,” Lazy Daisy whines. “We need to rest it and stop moving.”
“Oh pul-ease. It’s not that bad. We can work through the pain. That’s the best way to heal it,” says The Dread Pirate Eager Overachiever!
Well. I expect you can see where it goes from here. It’s a crazy shouting match between the two of them and I’m standing by listening as they go back and forth, watching it like a ping pong match. Meanwhile, my body is moving in the medium, habitual way I always do. I’m hypnotized by the two quarreling residents of my snarled up mind. The noise from the fighting is so loud, I completely forget to listen to my body.
In Nia, Principle 7 suggests choosing from the Three Levels of Intensity: Level 1, movements close to center; Level 2, larger movements away from center; and Level 3, full range of motion. As a teacher, I say this like it’s obvious. As a teacher, I gently toss these little mind grenades of “both challenging and healing.” As a student, it’s not that simple. As a student, I feel confused as I grapple with figuring out the right level of intensity for me…because I’m listening to my mind.
Or rather, I’m listening to my Tight Mind. My Tight Mind knits my eyebrows and makes my breath go shallow. My Tight Mind has been trained by almost 51 years of living, and by the messages from much of mainstream fitness and popular culture. The trick is to shift the mind I’m listening to, to listen instead to my Big Mind. My Big Mind is the mind that feels sensation in the present moment. Big Mind draws on the wisdom of millennia of evolution. Big Mind understands the Three Levels easily.
My yoga teachers invite me to choose movement that is challenging enough to keep me focused and compassionate enough to allow full and even breath. Rather than the Tight Mind approach thinking and figuring out what level of intensity I need, yoga teaches me to feel it with my Big Mind.
Approaching my practice from Tight Mind will keep me twisted up and confused, moving out of habit. The trouble with Tight Mind is that it’s like expecting two over-tired, anxious 7-year-olds to sort out a disagreement. When I follow this Big Mind, body-centered approach, Lazy Daisy and Eager B. Overachiever curl up in the back seat and get some rest.