As the seventh child of an army general, I used to ride around in the back seat of the family car, a camouflage-green sedan with silver stars on the license plate. As our car went by, young men with crew cuts and spines stiff as bayonets snapped to attention and saluted, even if it was just my mother and me in the car. Our bumper sticker proclaimed the motto my father had coined for the whole 101st Airborne Division, as well as for his own family: "We do things right."
When I started doing hatha yoga, back in my early 20s, I still thought that "doing things right" was the point. I thought if I drilled away at my practice with military discipline, my yoga poses--and my life--would stand at attention and salute. My hamstrings would get longer and longer. My backbends would get deeper and deeper. My mind would getquieter and quieter.
Through my practice, I imagined, I'd root out all my messy imperfections: the kink in my spine, the tightness in my jaw, the bowed legs from years of horseback riding. Like my Downward Dog pose, my whole life would come into perfect alignment. I'd free my creativity. I'd learn to sing on key. I'd only love men who loved me back.
And in fact, in the early days of a yoga practice, that's often how things seem to be going. Every day, we are stronger and more flexible. We fold and arch and lift into handstands and backbends and twists we couldn't have dreamed of a month before. We slow down and fall in love with the world: the wild beauty of high, scudding clouds; the tart crunch of an Gravenstein apple; the liquid eyes of the deer eating the buds off our rosebushes.
But as we go on practicing month after month, year after year, we notice something we may find disturbing at first: Our bodies do not, in fact, get endlessly better and better, upgraded year after year like software programs. Instead, they change in cycles. Some days we are flexible. Other days we are stiff. We pull a hamstring, and forward bends are out for a month. We slip a disk moving into a new apartment and can't do backbends for the rest of the year.
Dismayingly, life itself--in all its glory and passion--interferes with the perfection of our formal yoga practice. We get pregnant and give birth. We get ill and grow old. We spend mornings fixing breakfast for our children instead of doing Sun Salutations. We visit our aging parents in Brooklyn instead of going to Bali on a yoga retreat. And one day we notice, with a shock, that we can't do a yoga pose we used to be able to do with ease. We stare at an old photograph that shows us in a deep backbend, our hands clasping onto our ankles. And we feel a pang of envy for the person we used to be.
If we look deeply at our lives, we see how our minds and our bodies, our mates and our families, stubbornly resist our attempts to whip them into shape. We discover that mastering Lotus pose will not necessarily save our marriage. We notice that doing yoga doesn't mean that we won't ever get sick or die. We may even find that as our yogapractice makes us more sensitive to our inner experiences, we feel more rather than less emotional pain; we become aware of grief and longing that we didn't even know were there.
And so we start looking to our yoga to give us something other than perfect bodies and charmed lives: an ability to meet whatever is true in our bodies--and our lives--with grace, awareness, and compassion.
And at this point, our yoga practice really begins.
We come to realize that yoga is a process, not a product. Our lives and our bodies are not golf courses, endless expanses of pruned and sprayed green grass. Rather, they're forests, thick with underbrush, rot, and decay, out of which new life continually grows.
We learn to embrace our crooked ribcage, the catch in our right hamstring, the way our left shoulder is perpetually slightly higher than the right. We make space in our hearts for our bouts of depression, our tendency to procrastinate, the jumble of unmatched socks in our dresser drawer, the unfinished novel on our hard drive.
And eventually, if we're lucky, we begin to see the perfection of our imperfection. We begin to touch our lives with a kind of tenderness, like cradling a baby bird in our cupped hands. And in doing so, we give ourselves--and the world--a gift that is far more precious than "doing things right."