Last July I sprained my knee while playing basketball. Injuries are synonymous with this game. After a lifetime of getting hurt playing competitive sports, however, this one gave me pause. Given that I earn most of my income with my body as a yoga instructor, I had to rethink the value of hitting the court three mornings a week.
This was no easy decision: basketball was my yoga long before yoga. Still, after a sprained wrist, cut chin requiring four stitches, and knee sprain over a three-month period, it was time to hang up my sneakers. I quit my membership at the Y and never looked back.
The injury left me unable to run, so cardiovascular exercise was nearly absent in my life. As valuable as yoga is, it simply does not provide the intense metabolic training that’s so valuable to heart health. A few weeks ago I began taking high-intensity main studio classes at Equinox, where I’ve taught yoga for more than nine years. In all that time I never stepped inside the room; now I found myself at the mercy of entirely new ways of moving my body.
Having a 15-year yoga practice, I am very comfortable in the context of asanas. I know my limitations and strengths, know where I can improve, when I need to relax, how to excel. Suddenly thrust into cardio- and strength-training classes like Shockwave, 4x4 and the insanely challenging VIPR was very humbling — a yogic lunge is very different from those with a 15-pound rubber tube thrust above your head.
In her book Buddha, religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes, "Even if the familiar is unsatisfactory, we tend to cling to it because we are afraid of the unknown." Yoga was in no way unsatisfying, but I also recognized that I craved a different challenge. Stepping into new movement disciplines is no easy task. I quickly realized that it called for a strong dose of humility.
I pondered this as I prepared this month's Flow Play Vinyasa classes. The theme for January is Renewal. The New Year is like a cultural reset, the time of year when we collectively focus on change. Many of the writings and teachings around this form of annual regeneration discuss reflection, confidence, inspiration and so on. Yet very rarely do I hear the word humility.
In Buddhism humility is an important concept. Being humble in all endeavors keeps you in the mindset of a student. You’re always open to learning, and never think you know more than you do. Sometimes getting too comfortable in any discipline invokes a sense of hubris that you might not even recognize. One of the quickest ways of overcoming that is to throw yourself into something you don’t know much about.
This requires an open mind and plenty of patience. The discomfort of beginning is a healthy sign. It makes us vulnerable; it softens us.
In season four of The Wire, Kima Greggs is moved from the Major Crimes unit to Homicide. On her first outing, Bunk Moreland tells her that in order to successfully survey a crime scene, she needs "soft eyes." Look too hard for evidence and you have a narrow vision. You miss things. Keep your gaze soft and you see clues where you wouldn’t have expected to look.
Humility is like that. If we steel ourselves with the confidence of what we do know, we might prove unreceptive to what we don’t. When we stop challenging ourselves, we stop growing. Remaining a beginner in everything we do — and trying out new things regularly — keeps us moving ahead.