I barely recognized you!

Yesterday at the university gym where I work out, I initially didn’t recognize the student staffer at the front desk. But as I pedaled up a sweat, I realized that he resembled someone I hadn’t seen since winter. That guy was much beefier (the overstuffed look of a misguided male trying to “get huge”), with cropped hair rather than this guy’s Brady Bunch curls. A brother, perhaps?

Turns out, he was the same guy. It was his senior year and he’d been cutting his hours to focus on school. During that time he also lost 43 pounds.

“I barely recognized you!” I said. “You look great. What made you change your whole workout and lose that weight?”

“I was 243 pounds,” he said. “I just wasn’t feeling good. I’d get out of breath and everything. Just wanted to get in shape.”

Quite an impressive physical transformation: Losing 43 pounds in less than six months. Growing the hair into a curly mop. Creating a new look that could fool even spies like me.

Transformation and yoga

I was intrigued by this 22-year-old’s turnaround, perhaps because I’m fascinated by all human transformation. When I see it happen, it inspires me. Whether physical, emotional, or intellectual, change is hard.

Change seems especially difficult for adults. A baby morphs from month to month, week to week, even day to day. Growth is inherent in babyhood. Just by being alive, they grow. Adults need to make it happen.

Once, when my Iyengar yoga teacher held us in a challenging pose, a classmate broke the tension with a joking complaint. My teacher responded good-humoredly, and then added, “Yoga is about transformation. And you don’t expect transformation to come easily, do you?”

I often think about her words. I’ve never minded that yoga is challenging. In Iyengar yoga, I can’t get away with sloppiness anywhere. But these very challenges seem necessary for any breakthroughs. While “anything goes” yoga might offer solace for a moment, it is probably less likely to spur real transformation, which seems to need that classic arc: effort, achievement, rest.

Our physical improvement though asana is probably obvious to us all. Barring injury, we can do poses better today than on day one. But I wonder if changes in my body are spurring mental maturity. That is my challenge. I don’t need to lose weight or grow my hair or do crazy arm balances. But I do need to outgrow a mental “bad habit” or two. How can my asana practice spur that change?

Image: Butterfly farm, Costa Rica, 2003

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8 thoughts on “I barely recognized you!

  1. It’s interesting to think about how different styles of yoga help with different sorts of transformations — and at different times in our lives. When I was depressed and in need of big obvious changes (including losing weight, as I write about in my book EnLIGHTened) Jivamukti and Baron Baptiste were wonderful catalysts for me. Now that, like you, my needs are more subtle I feel like Iyengar is absolutely the right place for me.

  2. it’s amazing that you write about this. i was just talking to my pops about this. my 20 year old brother, still living at home, dropped out of high school at 15. been cooking (excellently) ever since then. hated school hated books hated being told what to do. last week, he asks my dad if he has any good books in the house. in the 20 years ive know him, he has never ever read a book on his own if he wasn’t required to. now he has “of mice and men” and a stack of hemingway next to his bed. i couldn’t really believe it, asked my dad what the hell happened. my dad, nonchalantly, says, “people change over the years. do you want me to remind you of the ways you have?”

    i politely decline.

  3. How to shape the mind through the practice of asana… how does one target ‘mental “bad habits”‘ with a physical practice? These are interesting questions to consider, dealing with the very purpose of asana practice.

    I would say one should begin by seeking an understanding of the triggers that spur these ‘mental “bad habits,”‘ but how to recreate or simulate these triggers in the practice of asana? It’s up to the practitioner to seek the edge of comfort, find out where things get messy, and spend more time there.

  4. Big topic, Spy! This is something I think about a lot. One thing for me is noticing my habits on the mat, and connecting them to my off-the-mat behavior. So my practice acts as a kind of mirror to help me recognize changes I need to make. And, seeing how my body has responded to diligent practice gives me confidence in my ability to create change.

    I love the photo — great image for evoking the concept of transformation… and great memories, too! 🙂

  5. Hi Spy (with my little eyes).
    You wonder whether changes on the mat correspond to changes in life. We both like quoting smart people around us, right? So I have a friend who is a reflexologist and treats people for almost 20 years. When someone doubts asks her Is there a connection between the body and the soul? she responds by asking Is there a difference? Then she asks them to act like a shy person, for example. They bend their back, move their shoulders closer together, bring their head down and look up at her. Then she says – Do you get it?
    I believe that change in asana IS change in mentality. Flexibility on the mat IS flexibility in thought. Avoiding extra effort and self injury IS ahimsa.
    Thank you for your enlightening blog. Guy.

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