Monday, September 6, 2010

The blue and black stone

“I’m not going to be very good dinner company.”

No response. At all.

“I’m NOT going to be very good dinner company,” I repeated a little bit louder to the woman who had placed her tray across from mine, clearly, in my mind anyway, taking pity on the poor girl eating all by herself in the crowded Kripalu dining hall on a busy Saturday night. She glanced at me only briefly, obviously not intending to take my not-so-subtle hint that I wanted to be left alone, and I wondered if she could tell I’d been crying. My instinct to pretend everything was fine - to will the tears backward from where they lay precariously on my bottom eyelids, one blink away from streaming down my cheeks - was met with a manipulative curiosity. Maybe if I WAS obviously crying she WOULD leave me alone, and I REALLY wanted to be left alone. Even more so when I recognized her as the 50-something, abrasive woman with the thick Boston accent who had snapped at me in the laundry room the night before. I, riding the euphoric high of a week at Kripalu, had been shocked by her “real-world-ness” - she had been angry that there were no washing machines available on Friday night (umm, join the club, sweetheart - Kripalu may be heaven on earth, but when it comes to laundry it’s the only part of the organization a bit closer to hell - of the six machines in the basement two are for staff use only, requiring a special card, and at least two are always out of order, leaving only two coin operated machines for the 600 guests who may decide to do laundry on any given day) and when I had admonished her (in a positively giddy, and in retrospect, probably obnoxious way) for saying the situation was hopeless (“Don’t say THAT! Nothing is EVERRRR hopelesssssss!” I had gushed. Who did I think I was, exactly?) she had quickly put me in my place, snapping back at me with such anger that I had physically recoiled. It hadn’t phased me in the moment, particularly, but less than 24 hours later I was feeling pretty hopeless for other reasons, and quite enjoying my trip to Wallow-World alone in the dining hall with my plate of kale and other assorted steamed vegetables. After a week of pure bliss, it was almost comforting to revert to old habits. Not almost, actually. It just was.

Why was this woman sitting down with me? I searched her eyes for any glimpse of recognition, but if she did recognize me as the overzealous-life-is-BEAUTIFUL-smiley face-LOVE-exclamation-points!!!! type from the night before, she hid it well. Instinct winning out, I pushed back my tears and tried again, a bit more forcefully.

“I’m just finishing up, really, and honestly, I’m not going to be great company anyway, and…” Wait - were my tears betraying me, the little JERKS, or was that residual sweat from the vigorous yoga class with Danny I had just finished 20 minutes prior? I didn’t have to wonder long.

“Why, because you’re crying? That’s why I’m here.”

She said it with such authority that I was quite sure she was telling the truth, and in my current state of self-loathing, I was also quite sure it was to let me know that I needed to pack up and leave the yoga teacher training program immediately. My tears made up their own minds and sprung from my eyes.

In somewhat of a quick-cycling-bipolar-like episode, I had gone from being on top of the world to the pit of despair in less than 24 hours. When I had last seen angry-laundry-room-lady, everything in my world had been perfect. More than perfect, actually. I was riding a somewhat insane high after a full week of teacher training. I was managing four hours of yoga a day, plus posture clinics and lectures, eating incredible organic food, going to the sauna and hot tub (with cold dip plungey pool!!) and getting eight solid hours of sleep EVERY NIGHT, and being encouraged to be completely authentic and real. And to my surprise, everyone seemed to really like me! A lot! I was getting so much positive feedback, constantly, and I was eating it up. People I thought were drop-dead gorgeous were spontaneously telling me I was “stunningly beautiful” when I felt anything but. People who had intimidated me to the nth degree when I first met them were asking me to have meals, vying for my attention, telling me I was funny!! I was was being real and I wasn’t being rejected!! Incredible! My extraordinary teachers seemed to really like me and, as far as I could tell, thought I actually BELONGED in their program! Who knew?!?

So far I had spent our one day off a week taking a joy ride into the quaint town of Lenox with Kelly and Athena. We had eaten at the most adorable cafe, owned, in fact, by a Kripalu yoga teacher (and his wife) who had led morning sadhana on Thursday. Athena and I splurged on the most beautiful wooden watches at a little boutique shop, and I found only the most PERFECT gift for my sister - real butterfly wings set in sterling silver earrings (the butterfly died a natural death, I was assured.) We had pedicures and lattes and I bought note cards at the local general store so I could be a superstar yoga student and make flashcards to learn the Sanskrit names of poses. We listened to Deva Premal on the way home and sung Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya like perfect little yogini angels. But toward the end of our adventure something inside me had started to feel broken, somehow fake. I had pushed away the feeling.

After getting back to campus, I decided to go to the 4:15pm vigorous yoga class with Danny, “to kick my own ass” I had thought. And kick my own ass I did. The whole 90 minutes I was pouring sweat, internally admonishing myself. Accepting this voice without question, I let it berate me. “You’re sweating like a PIG, Hilary. This is ridiculous. This shouldn’t be so FUCKING hard! You’re pathetic. Can you even bind?? Oh my god, did you just fall out of TREE POSE after 2 seconds? Ridiculous. Awful. Oh, you’re NOT going to take the option to “build more heat” - eh? What a cop out. You suck. You have no right to be in a yoga teacher training program. None! You’re awful! Aww, poor BABY, you really don’t want to stay in this plank pose much longer, do you? TOO BAD! You’re fat! You’re ugly! You’re weak! Look at you! You’re failing at this class! You can’t do yoga! You SUCK!!”

The mean, mean, mean voice had actually brought me to tears in the middle of the class, and sitting at dinner afterward, alone, I was still listening to it. Nevermind the fact that I had made it through one of the most physically demanding yoga practices I’d ever attempted with grace and strength, after a week of more yoga and exercise than I’d ever done in a 6 day period before in my life (Kripalu YTT is, truly, yoga boot camp) - no, no, I was a FAILURE. A complete failure.

“Pick a card,” angry-laundry-room-lady said to me, fanning out an imaginary deck.

“Huh?” I was the one hearing evil voices, I really didn’t need to interact with a crazy person who had an imaginary card deck.

“Pick a card,” she said again, evenly.

I had a boss once who made me knock on a pretend door to his pretend office. Life is certainly cyclical.

“Okay. What card did I pick?” I asked, holding out my imaginary card, humoring her.

“You tell me.”

I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the conversation without telling her to fuck off, but that would FOR SURE get me kicked out of YTT at Kripalu, so I bit my tongue.

“I picked the two of hearts,” I said, glancing at the clock and wondering if there were any massage appointments available that evening.

“Ohhhh. So you’re anxious to communicate and longing to tell the truth.” She picked up her fork, not even pretending to put down her imaginary deck of cards. So she wasn’t quite as insane as my former boss. Or maybe just careless with her cards?

I paused, thinking that I’d like to say that were I ANXIOUS to communicate, lady, I wouldn’t have tried repeatedly to convince you NOT to join me for dinner, nor would I be eating ALONE when I have 56 new best friends here, all of whom would join me for dinner if I asked. How’s THAT for the truth?

“I’m doing my yoga teacher training here, and I don’t think I’m good enough.” I said, instead. “And that really is the truth,” I realized, starting to cry. I was, out of nowhere, telling angry-laundry-room lady everything. How my wonderful day started feeling horrible, how this mean voice inside my head just wouldn’t let me feel happy, or good about myself, how my brain had rebelled against a week of feeling so high on life and happy and free and positively BLISSFUL by tearing me to shreds, how Danny’s vigorous class should have been easy for me if I’m training to do what he was doing, RIGHT?

Angry-laundry-room-lady responded with a story of her own, a story of years of self-loathing, the women she had loved who had used her and left her, weight she had gained and lost and gained again, and how in the end hating herself didn’t serve her at all, and how, in fact, she had just spent $4000 on some 10-day workshop in the wilderness to rid herself of her self-loathing - because it was that or killing herself - and had then come straight to Kripalu for a weekend of R&R, massages and time in the hot tub. I momentarily forgot all about my own mean inner voice and wondered why on earth someone would spend that much time despising themselves when it served absolutely no purpose and, Christ, cost them a LOT of cash. And as I studied her more carefully, I felt my heart break for her struggle. She was actually very beautiful, incredibly articulate, and just another soul on this earth trying to do the best she could. (Much later on in my Kripalu adventure a stunning yoga goddess would teach me that intimacy means “into me I see” - just like me this person wants to be happy. Just like me this person has known hardship. Just like me. Just like me.)

“I happen to know, however, that you are going to be a spectacular yoga teacher,” she said, out of nowhere, ending her own story without any specific or necessarily happy resolution.

I looked down at my untouched kale, wondering for a moment if anyone would lend me a car or knew where the nearest burger joint was. “How do you know that?”

“You have the eyes for it,” she said.

“Thank you.” I said, perhaps too flatly. It doesn’t take EYES to be a good yoga teacher, I thought. It takes a perfect body! It takes being able to bind in a really, really deep warrior twist! It takes holding chaturanga dandasana for 30 minutes and not breaking a sweat! It takes always choosing the option to produce “more heat” because YES, IT’S AVAILABLE TO YOU, and if it ISN’T then you SHOULDN’T be teaching yoga…

“It’s in your eyes already,” she said, as though it were a matter of fact, cutting through my self-hating reverie. “You radiate compassion. Maybe you just need to start looking at yourself the way you’ve been looking at me for the past ten minutes as I told you my story.”

Kripalu means compassion, and Kripalu yoga is, in fact, the yoga of non-judgmental, compassionate self-observation. In my classes I had been learning about something called witness consciousness - the seer - the layer of being that just watches. Just sees. Without judgment. Things just are.

It wasn’t in that moment that I got it. It wasn’t any specific moment, at all. But my dinner with angry-laundry-room-lady was part of the journey to realizing that I can choose to tell that mean voice in my head to fuck off when it tries to tell me I’m not good enough. When it calls me names. When it treats me the way I wouldn’t treat a perfect stranger. And, low and behold, I’ve started to do just that.

“Pick a stone,” she said. Certain these were stones as real as her deck of cards, I reached out lazily, stopping with my hand hovering over hers when I realized there actually were several little stones laying gently in her palm.

“Which one?” I asked, feeling anxious all of the sudden.

“You tell me,” she answered. “You know which one is yours.”

I picked a small, smooth blue and black stone, held it tightly in my palm, noticing how cool it felt against my skin. Still unsure if the stone was actually real, or if maybe the cards hadn’t been imaginary at all, I thanked her for the company, and treated myself to a massage at the healing arts department, followed by a long sauna and soak in the hot tub.

My last morning at Kripalu, three weeks to the day after my dinner with angry-laundry-room lady - three weeks that equate to a lifetime of learning and self-discovery, to the point where I can almost not recognize that girl in Danny’s class kicking her own ass both internally and externally - I took that same stone on a walk with me through the labyrinth. The stone had come to represent a moment when I was so afraid of failing that even while trying my very hardest, and in reality, succeeding, I told myself I wasn’t good enough. I thought about my limiting beliefs, all of the ways I treat myself poorly, the voice in my head that shows up to scream at me during difficult situations, both on and off the mat. I thought about all of the ways I let baseless self-loathing negatively impact my life. I put it all in the stone. Every last bit of it. I placed it in the center of the labyrinth.

And I left it behind.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this, Hilary. Please keep writing! And drop me an e-mail or text when you have a chance.

  2. This brought tears to my eyes! How beautiful!