Yoga is, most literally, the yoking of breath and movement. It is also the yoking of breath and insight. The breath produces the insight; the breath conveys the insight; the breath confirms the insight. In each breath cycle, as the self inhales, it ventures outward into the collective and gains wisdom. As it exhales, it brings that wisdom back to the inner core. In each breath cycle, the inhaling self presents itself to the collective, exhausts its resources and retreats, exhaling, back to the core for renewal. The yoga mat acts like this mechanism of respiration. My yoga mat is the launching point for my wisdom and it is the place where I bring back all my experiences for processing and dissemination.
It has been three weeks since I completed my 8th Ironman triathlon. An event of this magnitude most definitely gets brought back to my yoga mat for processing. As always, the instant an Ironman is completed, the day’s events become less real and more surreal. At this point, it seems inconceivable that I actually swam 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles, and ran (well, “waddled”) 26.2 miles. As the day fades, what remains is its refusal to fit neatly into a simple answer to the question, “how was your race?” The optimist in me wants to discuss the successes; the historian in me feels compelled to admit the defeats.
I have always been struck by how a single Ironman day contains an entire lifetime of experience and how, in a parallel world, a single yoga pose contains all potential knowledge. The recurring truths common to each of my eight Ironman days seem applicable to the practice of yoga and worthy of “bringing back to the mat.”
Upon my return from Ironman Arizona, I felt compelled to read the following Emily Dickinson poem to my classes:
‘Tis so much joy! ‘Tis so much joy!
If I should fail, what poverty!
And yet, as poor as I,
Have ventured all opon a throw!
Have gained! Yes! Hesitated so –
This side the Victory!
Life is but life! And Death, but Death!
Bliss is but Bliss, and Breath but Breath!
And if indeed I fail,
At least, to know the worst, is sweet!
Defeat means nothing but Defeat,
No drearier, can befall!
And if I gain! Oh Gun at sea,
Oh Bells, that in the steeples be!
At first, repeat it slow!
For Heaven is a different thing,
Conjectured, and waked sudden in –
And might extinguish me!
This poem captures the multiplicity that is an IronDay. There is joy; there is defeat. There is victory; there is disappointment. There is joy in defeat; there is disappointment in victory. Ironman training and racing is the constant management of the yogic “klesa” known as “raga” or “attachment” to expectations. It is quite easy to understand how this mental action is considered one of the “root causes of unhappiness.” In what possible world is the completion of 140.6 miles not sufficient? In what possible world could one be disappointed in one’s performance when finished? And yet, each of my Irondays has been filled with victories and defeats; with joy and disappointment; with pride and shame.
Almost every Iron person I have met creates a tiered set of race day time expectations. And each Iron Person I have met gets very “attached” to these expectations. There is the “if I am not out of the water/off the bike/at the finish line by this time, then you need to tell a volunteer to launch a Search & Recovery Mission. (This would not be a not “rescue” mission because if I were to post these times, I would, literally, rather be dead than live with that shame.) There are the “humble” times that you share with people so they know what they should expect of you. But you know that these times would disappoint you if you actually posted them. There are your “optimistic” times which you admit that you “might be able to achieve if everything goes well.” In reality, these are actually the slowest times that will allow you any sense of pride. Finally, there are the times you really hope to get but which you admit to no one. Each day of your six plus months of training is spent speculating, calculating, evaluating, and re-calculating these times. Each minute of your 8 – 17 hour IronDay is spent assessing yourself in relation to these times. That’s whole lot of “raga”; a whole lot of attachment to something highly ephemeral; a whole lot of focus on something that is only tenuously and indirectly in your control. Or in yogic terms, that is a strong “root” foundation for “unhappiness.”
Both yoga and Ironman demand that you encounter and negotiate a basic life truth: in each moment “’tis so much joy” and yet, simultaneously, each moment contains “poverty”; each experience contains both victories and defeats. When I exited the water in Arizona, my watch read 1:20. Since this was my “Optimistic” Swim Time, I was, of course, slightly disappointed despite the fact that I was elated to have posted my fastest ever Ironman Swim time. By the time I finished the race, I had convinced myself that my 1:20 Swim Time was worthy of a “gun at sea” level celebration. However, the instant I spoke with my older son, he informed me that the swim course must have been “short.” How could he possibly have known this from his high and dry perch in Boulder Colorado? Well, he pointed out that his Triathlon Teammate who was also doing Ironman Arizona had posted a 54 minute swim. Three weeks prior, my son and that same teammate had swum together in another, shorter race and had exited the water at the exact same time. My son’s point was, “Mom, I don’t have a 54 minute Ironman swim in me right now.” I had to concede his point, place an asterisk behind the swim time of which I had become so proud, and cancel the “gun at sea.” Sigh . . .
My bike time required the same relinquishing of expectations. I happily hopped off the bike, desperate for a “new kind of pain,” in 6:29. This, too, was a “personal record” for me. Yet, it represented my “Humble Time” and as such, carried with it a certain amount of personal shame. “And yet, as poor as” this time seemed to me, “I, [had] ventured all” and had indeed pushed myself harder than I ever had previously. This effort “[had] gained” me the highest ever placement in my age division. My older son, who was tracking my progress on line, texted my younger son (who was at the event) and told him that I was in 18th place out of 106 participants in my 50-54 year old age division. When my younger son saw me a few miles into the marathon, he yelled this fact at me as I ran past him. I had a sneaking suspicion that I might have done comparatively well on the bike since I only saw two people in my age division pass me. But, this type of success seemed so unlikely that I dismissed it. Previous to this event, the highest placement I had ever attained in my age division was the 66th percentile. When my younger son let me know that I had placed in the 17th percentile, I began giggling for joy. I easily released my “raga” and detached from my disappointment with an objective ”time” by choosing to focus upon a different, comparative, marker of success.
Given that I had been dealing with an injured foot all year and had therefore deliberately done very little run training, I knew that my job on the marathon would be to simply minimize the damage. I expected not to post my fastest marathon split. Even though I did indeed “fail,” by over 30 minutes, “at least, to know the worst, is sweet!” because I did manage to run consecutively for the first nine miles of the marathon - “SWEET!” I had never done that before and being able to do so constitutes a crucial step toward my future goal of a sub 5:00 marathon.
My overall time was 14:24. No, it was not the sub 14 hour finish I had been secretly “expecting” but it was a new personal best. Although in the minutes, hours, and days after the Ironman, the fact that this was my fastest ever time was a mere life raft to which I was clinging as I was being tossed and turned in the sea of post event depression, I am now “ringing” out the announcement of this time as if it were indeed the “bells that in the steeples be!”
I assume that for the non-Ironman, it is rather easy to see the absurdity of my thinking. After all, as I asked rhetorically earlier, “in what possible world would one be remotely disappointed after having posted the fastest of one’s eight Ironman times?” However, as a yoga instructor, I witness students encounter a similar dilemma on their mats. In each class and in every pose, students encounter success and failure. If they choose to hold fast to their expectations of their abilities – of what they “should” be able to do and what they “should” be experiencing – they leave their mats feeling defeated. But, they can choose to realize that, “Defeat means nothing but Defeat, No drearier, can befall!” By doing so, they become willing to accept the inherent paradox in each pose and in every experience: each pose, each experience contains victory and defeat; each pose, each experience simultaneously means everything and means nothing. “Life is but life! And Death, but Death! Bliss is but Bliss, and Breath but Breath!”
The benefit of sustained participation in events like triathlon and in practices such as yoga is that one eventually realizes that one’s expectations represent ideals that are not meant to be achieved. As Emily Dickinson warns, one should be wary of manifesting pure, unequivocal victory, “For Heaven is a different thing, Conjectured, and waked sudden in – And might extinguish me!”
Instead, these “expectations” serve us best as a motivating force which encourages us to expand beyond the limitations of our former self while confronting the essential truths of our multiplicitous existence. Or in other words, "you have to take the good with the bad." The more tolerant you are of the fact that no pose, no class, no event, no experience will be 100% positive, the more willing you are to release your expectations of what you "should" be able to do, the more willing you are to withhold judgement about how things "should" proceed, the more satisfaction and happiness you will reap not only from your yoga poses and classes but from your life's events and experiences.