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The risk of learning

I’ve been practicing yoga regularly for about nine months now, attending classes several times a week at a studio less than a mile from my house. It’s done wonders for my back, which has long been beset by debilitating (though mercifully intermittent) pain. I’m not naturally strong or flexible, but I’ve marveled at the incremental progress I’ve made, class by class, as the months pass by.

I was finally starting to feel like a modestly capable yogini when I recently discovered during an intensive workshop that I had been doing chaturanga – a fundamental pose that one does countless times in each class – wrong. Not a little bit wrong. All wrong. My initial chagrin was magnified a hundredfold when I discovered that I am nowhere near strong enough to do it properly.

It’s not the end of the world. There are modifications. Until my shoulders are strong enough to support my weight where it is supposed to be shifted, I can move through the pose on my knees. Still, I walked away from the workshop feeling crestfallen to the point of despair.

I recognized this feeling. It’s the one I wallowed in throughout the entire unit on long division when I was in the fourth grade. I would slump over my desk staring at my workbook, willing myself not to cry. I just could not understand it. The teacher was bewildered; I was a reasonably bright kid, but I shut down completely when asked to divide large numbers.

I’ve invested a lot of energy avoiding this feeling – understandably. Who revels in feeling dumb, or weak, or incapable? It’s far more fun to focus on the things you do well.

(This is why I don’t scrapbook. I took one look at my first lamentable layout, and thought: Oh dear, this is long division all over again.)

I’ve done such a fine job of avoiding failure that I can’t point out many times in my life that I have triumphed through sheer grit and determination. Rather, I quietly walk away – or distract myself and others by upping my game at the things that do come more easily.

Yet there is something to be said for having the humility to keep going when you feel dumb, or weak, or incapable. There is something to be said for putting in the work to do something that is as worthwhile as it is hard (like paddling upstream, for instance).

At the beginning of every yoga class, each student is invited to set a personal intention. I am ever seeking to integrate my faith with my practice, so my intention usually has something to do with praising God with my body, or experiencing joy in the Lord. But at the beginning of the chaturanga workshop where I realized I was doing it so wrong, I had set a different intention. It was an intention that I thought was practical, but almost too simple – certainly a lot less spiritually grand than my usual intentions.

I had set out to learn.

To open yourself to learning is to risk. Learning means letting your pride go. Learning means allowing yourself to be humble – even allowing yourself to be humbled. Learning means lowering yourself to your knees, if that’s what it takes.

I’m beginning to see that setting out to learn is as spiritual an intention as any – on and off the mat.

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