I grew up taking ballet and enjoy a structured class with focus on proper technique. From dancing, I had flexibility, but hardly the strength to hold an asana (pose) for more than a few seconds. After 20 years of ballet training I suffered many injuries due to pushing myself too far.
There was always an emphasis on appearance; thinner, taller, lighter, softer. It’s taken years of spiritual, nutritional and physical therapy to repair the damage that my body and mind endured in pursuit of the perfect ballerina body. I turned to yoga to heal.
My first lesson came early on day one of yoga class while attempting Virabhadrasana Two (Warrior Two). As my instructor said something about finding balance, my focus drifted to the women in front of me. They were twice my age, holding the pose with such graceful strength. They made it look as effortless as smiling.
Meanwhile, I was able to bend my knee as low, but I was shaking, turning red from forgetting to breathe, and unable to focus. It was difficult to let go of ego and accept that I didn’t have the strength these women had. Old habits returned. I started to push myself to go deeper in the pose even though my body was screaming in protest.
Whether she spoke to me directly or was generalizing, I tuned in to my instructor’s words as she said, “Remember, we’re at different levels, and it’s okay to not be as strong as you wish you were. Appreciate this time now. Look back on it fondly as you advance your practice.” Then more direct: “Melissa, come up a little. You’re not there yet and that’s okay.”
It was the first time I'd ever heard an instructor (ballet or otherwise) say it’s alright to not be perfect. She caught me off guard. I felt as though she gave me permission to release the old way of thinking. I changed my perception of perfection (nonexistent) and accepted my physical weakness as not a fault, but a step in the process.
I eased up a bit and almost instantly my envy of those women in front of me turned to mental high fives—they’re pretty awesome! Good for them. It became something for which to strive. I reminded myself to breathe and was even able to smile through the burning in my thighs. I practically broke into a laughing fit when we were told to release and switch sides.
Perhaps I’ll have other days where ego creeps back in, shouting lies about not being good enough, but now I know how to silence it. Even if my downward facing dogs are still shaky pups, I’ve learned the biggest difference between ballet and yoga is that growth isn’t determined solely from outward appearance. It comes from within.
Melissa Esposito is a travel, food and culture writer based in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley. She is a student of the B.K.S. Iyengar tradition of yoga in the spiritual center of Woodstock, NY. When she’s not practicing her asanas and Sanskrit at home, she enjoys writing poetry, playing guitar, traveling and cooking for anyone who will eat. She also maintains the music blog UpstateNYundergroundMusic.com.