Failed Tap Dancer Now Teaches Yoga: the danger of delusion and value of experience.

(reposted from 2011)

When I was a ten year old girl, I auditioned for he talent show at Jefferson Elementary.  Back in those days, there wasn’t the ‘every kid is a winner’, ‘everyone gets a spot’ mentality.   As I stood on the stage for my audition, my mind had already jumped ahead to the footlights and applause.

I knew I could do a tap dance, because I had taken a tap dancing class back in second grade. By now, I had out-grown my little tap shoes, with the grosgrain ribbons across the top, so I told my mom I needed new ones. High-heeled tap shoes, like the grown-up tap dancers wear. My mom suggested that I do the audition in regular shoes, and then if I got accepted into the talent show she would buy me the high-heeled shoes. No, I insisted: I needed the grown-up high-heeled tap shoes for the audition! I was sure if I had those shoes, I’d get a spot in the talent show. Back then, they didn’t let just anybody into the talent show: you had to show some talent.

My mom was eventually compelled to buy the shoes. Size 5. On the day of the talent show auditions, I sat through a bunch of other acts, several of which included the song “Celebrate” by Kool & the Gang. I don’t think I had prepared any music; I just buckled on my heels, went out onto the stage, and ‘danced’. Here’s how I could prove that I was dancing: my shoes were making taps and swishes and I jauntily moved my arms and grinned, and stomped and stepped. Although, after about 90 seconds, I ran out of moves. I did a few last grand steps, in rapid succession, froze in a pose of humility (hearing applause in my head) and pride (soaking in the imagined adulation), and exited the stage.

Much to my surprise, I didn’t get a spot in the talent show.

I didn’t wear the tap shoes again. In fact, I kind of forgot about the whole thing, until one day, about 30 years later, when I was about to teach a yoga class. A Shadow Yoga class. Shadow Yoga asks students to gain some degree of mastery over simple movements, and to develop some ability to pay attention and focus, before moving on to complex or ‘advanced’ yoga poses and activities. Without the foundation, the yoga practice will either be unsustainable, or will bear no results.

While it’s not entirely accurate to compare my inept tapdancing with yoga practice, what is similar is that I was blind to whether or not I could really tap dance.  I got a bit confused by the fact that I was on a stage, in my shoes, with an audience, and I had just enough experience to draw from to make me feel confident. The wake up call for me was that I didn’t get the part. In yoga practice, the wake up call might be that you can’t stand on your legs comfortably, or don’t feel well. Is your yoga practice serving you? Are you excessively identified with your image as a yoga practitioner or teacher? Do you like buying yoga clothes more than you like practicing yoga?

It’s helpful to approach practice with ‘beginner’s mind’, allowing space for new information and ideas to come in. This is easy enough for a person who has never tried yoga, but sometimes a challenge if students try Shadow Yoga when they have experience with yoga in the past. Experienced students have the challenge of already believing they ‘know’ about yoga and what it is. The mind is quick to make comparisons and judgments. For new and experienced practitioners alike, there’s also an impatience to get in there and do it: to approximate the images we’ve seen of headstands and impressive backbends, and feel like we’ve accomplished something. Like the 10-year old me, sometimes people are caught up in the excitement, have the proper outfit, and just want to get out there and do it! Like the 10-year old me, it can be hard to see that what you think you are doing, and what you are doing are very different things.

I thought I was tap dancing. But looking back and knowing that my understanding was based on hearing my shoes wildly tapping and the confidence of having taken one Tap Dance Series when I was 7 years old…. I am pretty sure my performance was not very good, or effective. I love that I was so confident, although 30 years later I know that confidence must be balanced with a foundation of basics, experience, and consistent applicaton, to lead to success.

When I didn’t get into the talent show, perhaps I realized that my background in the basics of tap dance was not strong, and I would have to go back and learn the steps before I could burst onto the stage and improvise. I abandoned tap dance altogether.

Likewise, the preludes, or basic vocabulary of Shadow Yoga, sometimes come to the seasoned yoga practitioner as an unpleasant surprise. They reveal previously unrecognized weaknesses and blindspots which are undermining the entire pursuit. Though it’s useful information, it can be demoralizing to realize that you may need to ‘backtrack’ or go back to being a bit of a beginner, again.

Sometimes we are blind to these situations, as I was when I thought I could tap dance. The way to tell if we are not seeing things clearly is if we get the wrong result. For instance, if I was as good a tap dancer as I thought I was, I should have gotten into my grade school talent show. Being faced with not getting into the show, I was forced to take stock and see why my expectations didn’t match up with reality. In our lives, if some “therapeutic” activity is not helping us, or bearing fruit, perhaps we are either approaching it in the wrong way, misunderstanding it, or have missed part of the vital information.

Success with yoga requires a calm and steady attitude. It takes patience and perseverance to cultivate focus and alertness at all times, and to be open and adaptable to every situation. The preludes, and the conditioning that they entail, teach us to work gradually, be compassionate towards ourselves. It’s not the end of the world if we realize we have a few holes in our abilities, in fact it is in those places of weakness that our potential power and strength may be found. Likewise they are structured so that one movement builds upon the last, so that we may over time and with practice develop a very stable foundation for yoga practice.

A good friend of mine recently said “When you’ve named something, you’ve killed it,” meaning that once you think you know about something, there’s no room for learning. As experienced yoga practitioners, indeed with any pursuit, it’s a challenge to set aside our understanding of things, to make room for new insight. It’s the challenge of creating an open and receptive state of mind. It might help to imagine you’ve never been to yoga class before, and notice when you rush through movements or asanas that are familiar, because you feel you already “know” what they are and what’s involved.

In any case, whatever your practice, the state of mind with which you approach it is as important as the practice itself. And maintaining that connection to an open mind, and maintaining a practice over time is a good plan for understanding, and a clear view of reality.

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