One day my teacher asked me to participate in an asana demonstration. Halfway through class, after he had walked around the room observing the twist we were practicing, he asked everyone to get out of the pose except for me. I stayed in the twist while the rest of the class gathered around my mat. As soon as I saw everyone’s eyes on me, my heart started to beat faster and my face became hotter. I dislike being the center of attention. In class, I scrupulously avoid being in the front row, preferring to hang out in the back of the room. My self-consciousness prevents me from reacting in a positive or even neutral way when people look at me. I feel that when they do, they can see everything that is wrong with me.
During the demonstration, when my teacher pointed out how I had started my twist in the middle of my back instead of lower down my spine, I felt embarrassed. I am happy to receive hints from my teacher on how to improve my poses, but the added pressure of having the whole class listening made me queasy. Luckily I was able to muster enough composure to attempt the twist again. This time I followed his suggestion by starting the twist in my lumbar spine. With this adjustment, I found that I could get deeper into the pose with much less effort. When the demonstration was finally over, I felt a strong sense of relief. However from then on, I could not feel entirely at ease in class knowing that I might be asked to participate in another demonstration.
My teacher selects all sorts of students for his demonstrations. I don’t know when he decides to do one and whom he will ask. One day he asked a student to demonstrate revolved half moon pose; it was not an easy pose for any of us in the class. There is a lot of huffing and puffing while we are in the pose, and a lot sighing with relief when it’s over. This student had many of the same difficulties that I had with this pose. The first one was the drooping back leg. My teacher worked a while with leveling the hips and strengthening the back leg. My fellow student tried to make the adjustments that my teacher suggested, but he was not entirely successful.
Eventually, my teacher moved to the upper body. As I stood watching the student, I noticed that little beads of sweat were forming on his forehead; his face was also flushed. He was trying to stay relaxed, but the shoulders were tense. I could see it took him an enormous amount of effort to maintain the pose for such a long time. Until that moment, all of my attention had been on listening to my teacher’s instructions and seeing how they might apply to me; now I was aware of how my fellow practitioner was faring. I could feel how hard it was for him to be struggling and having a tough time in front of the whole class. Then, a wave of empathy passed over me.
I was not entirely oblivious to other students, but this was the first time I actually was aware of the how another student was feeling. In general, I only noticed my classmates when their actions directly affected me. For instance when someone tall stood in front of me blocking my view of the teacher, I got annoyed. I treated incidents like this one as minor distractions, reminding myself why I was in class: my intention to practice yoga. Then I would turn my attention inward focusing on the asana that I was practicing. When my awareness didn’t waver, I could sense that all my movements were a coordinated effort of the mind, body and breath.
When these elements were in tune, the pose felt natural. Yet having had this powerful experience, I continued to act as if my life and practice were independent of the people around me. It was only when I saw my fellow yogi struggling with revolved half moon pose did I perceive how much I separated myself from others. My single-mindedness toward my practice and my self-consciousness were symptoms of how I isolated myself. I was so used to seeing life through the lens of my own experience and point of view that I wasn’t even conscious of it. Now I could see that my attitude limited me to only experiencing part of what yoga had to offer.
I decided to start looking at things from a different perspective. When there was demonstration, I stopped being concerned about whether I would be the one asked to help. One day, it might be me doing the pose. The next time, it might be another student. No matter who was doing the pose, everyone in the room was participating in the demonstration. During the 90 minutes we were in the studio together, I recognized that we were all dedicating ourselves to practicing yoga. My feelings of self-consciousness and isolation faded away. In their place, a deep sense of belonging and interconnectedness emerged. This was what it felt like to be part of a community.
Ann Bui lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She hopes one day todo a handstand away from the wall.