My yoga teacher, Denise, one day casually named the crazy mental leaps we make all the time: it’s called making up stories. We do it instinctively. Whatever is happening, we create a storyline about what it is, who caused it, why they did it, and what is going to happen next. Usually we pay more attention to the story than to what is actually happening.
Through repeated conjuring, these stories gain a lot of power. I’ve made up so many stories about myself over the years that I’ve gotten to points where I was sure I couldn’t do anything. Just bring in a wheelchair and the life support, and while you’re at it, a vodka martini and a bottle of Percocet.
Meditation is teaching me that they are just stories. Mud over the pearl. I don’t have to be mad at them, I can just observe them as they come in, and observe them as they go out.
One of my recurring stories is that I’m not athletic. “I’m an indoorsy type,” I used to tell people wryly. Someone throws a ball at me, I cringe.
The great thing about yoga for someone like me is that there is no point system. The goal is self study, not winning a contest. Still, most of the time I’m pretty sure I can’t do certain poses. And I get into a habit of simply not trying, or I use some handicap I don’t need. So it always comes as a wonderful surprise when one of my teachers invites me to get out of the wheelchair.
For example, one night my teacher Bianca came up to me while I was in triangle pose and said, “Susie, your hand is almost to the floor. You’re getting stronger.” Wow! Who knew? I had stopped trying to get there a long time ago.
During another class, Denise came to me while I was in my usual handicapped version of side-angle pose and said, “I bet you can put your hand on the floor in this pose.” And I did. So that’s how I practice it now. It feels free and strong. “I’m one of those people!” I tell myself. “I’m one of those people who can touch the floor!”
And this morning we did this crazy pretzel-y lunge thing (bound side-angle pose). Denise offered the hard version and the slightly easier version. I paused briefly at the easy one, and then went right into the hard one.
And I did it.
And I felt great. This kept happening pose after pose. Finally, I was so exhilarated that I felt light-headed.
The old story I believe about myself is just a story.
In this class, during the relaxation pose, we were all lying quietly in the dark with blankets over us. On the street outside the studio, a van was idling. (Denise is a bit of a stickler about idling vehicles outside the studio. She once trained a delivery truck driver to turn off his engine when he parked in front of the studio. She did this by repeatedly going out there in her leotards and ankle bracelets and asking him to do it.) So at one point, she got up and walked outside the studio and looked up and down the street. Then she came back in and we continued to lie there. After our closing chant and meditation, she said,
“Did you guys notice that engine running outside the whole time during savasana?”
Some people did, some didn’t.
“Here’s something to try next time: Tell yourself a story. You’re going to make one up anyway, and it’ll probably go something like this: What a jerk!”
Everyone laughed. Denise nodded.
“So instead imagine something like – well, I went out there and looked and it was one of those Elder Care vans that take people to doctor’s appointments. So I made up a story about how they were delivering an elderly woman who needed a lot of assistance. That felt like a much softer story than ‘what a jerk.’ Maybe it was even true.”
Maybe the new stories I’m making up can be true, too. Maybe I am one of those people who can, you know, touch the floor.