As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.
He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins.
“Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.
All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth;
but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
~ Luke 21:1-4
I grew up in a practicing Christian household; we went to church every Sunday morning and Wednesday night. When my brother and I were young, we attended vacation Bible school in the summer. Sometimes we attended VBS when we visited extended family out of state.
So I got very familiar with parables. I have always loved fables, legends, and fairy tales; parables have a similar instructional function. Though many were memorable, my favorite has always been the one commonly known as “The Widow’s Offering.” In four verses, the lesson claims the lowest monetary contribution is a greater offering than much higher amounts (from far wealthier people). The latter gave out of their abudance, but the widow gave out of her povery—“all she had to live on.” She had no reserves, but she made the effort to give much.
It’s a potent lesson about non-attachment, but even more meaningful for me as a child was that effort matters more than quantity. The scale of her gift, the significance of the amount renders her contribution into the most.
Little did I know in VBS that years later, my yoga practice (asana, pranayama, meditation) would recall this lesson. My meditation practice was nothing near the model of sitting on a cushion for two hours. When I first practiced, I could barely concentrate for two minutes! And those two minutes were a mighty struggle, believe me. Eventually, I was able to sit for ten minutes, then fifteen.
My asana practice was nothing about putting my leg behind my head. When I first practiced, I couldn’t touch my toes with my legs straight. I thought I would never do a headstand or sit in lotus. Eventually, I was able to do all these things.
But as the parable explains, the quantity alone was not the best measure of what I did. The change from two minutes of meditation to five was greater than the change from five minutes to twenty. I had no reserve in terms of natural flexibility—and thus the poses which may even today be far from “perfect” are much more significant than the few that came more easily.
When I started high school, I met two highly competitive gymnasts. Soon after that, by age fourteen, they had both quit the training path that would have led to the Olympics (at that point, three years in the future).
Fast forward a decade, and they were both my housemates. I already knew that they were exceedingly strong and flexible, but I was still impressed when attending asana classes with them as adults. They seemed as though little had changed, even though they hadn’t competed in gymnastics since high school.
They laughed at my awe. One said, “Well, we did stuff like this at such a young age; we’re not trying anything for the first time.” I mentioned that they had still done a lot of work as children, in order to gain their skills. They nodded, and then other added, “Exactly, we started doing this when we were less than half your age! It’s way easier then.” She continued, “What matters is that you work on it.”
To their credit—they are also exceedingly modest, perhaps even more than they are flexible. But they reminded me of the parable, that the measure is not in quantity, but in effort. What matters is that you work on it. The starting condition doesn’t matter.
My first asana teacher often said that there will always be more of something outside of you.
Meaning: there are always people more physically capable than you. There are always people who learn faster than you. There is always more to do, even if you’re doing more than others.
Point being: there’s no need to be caught up in the visuals of asana practice. The real practice exists in living the lessons.
Over the years, I have found her teachings to be true. Certainly, I have encountered a lot of astounding asana practitioners. In Mysore, there were highly advanced people in the shala with Pattabhi Jois and Sharath. I don’t mean highly advanced like nailing a handstand; I mean highly advanced like remaining in handstand for minutes at a time, while never looking fatigued. Some people would have looked normal in a contortionist act: one-armed handstands, backbends so deep they grab their calves, both legs behind their head with seemingly no effort.
I don’t do any of those things.
But so what? I care about how I interact with people, how I serve my community, how I handle my triumphs and failtures. I don’t need the difficulty level my asana practice to reflect my value as a human. Handstands are not the objective. Backbends don’t make me a decent person.
Out of all those bendy folks in Mysore, an older man, at least 60, impressed me the most. Not because he was the most adept—he was far from that. But because I thought he was likely to have more excuses not to practice. He was considerably older than most people, and still older than some of the above-average age students. I doubt more than five people were within 10 years (all younger) of his age. Though he was certainly agile, he wasn’t particularly muscular. But he was just as consistent as everyone else, and I was in awe of his willingness to put himself in a situation in which he didn’t blend, a situation that likely required additional effort—in this case, effort which I didn’t have to expend.
I realize I’m unlike most people in this way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as mesmerized by wild Cirque du Soleil acts as anyone else. Extreme athleticism and flexibility are truly impressive. From my observation, most folks are impressed by the Bobby Fischer types—extreme greatness towards which to aspire. I get it.
These extreme examples don’t exist only because of talent; I know they require a lot of work. But the people who inspire me the most are not that type of extreme example. Instead, I am much more impressed by people who face extreme struggles—even if their performance (in the broadest sense of the word) is less skillful than the greatest practitioners.
I don’t need much encouragement when I’m doing well. But I’m desperate for role models and inspiration when I’m struggling. Though outside factors can create struggle, most of the time I have my own contributions: fear, laziness, stagnation (among others).
In those moments, the most powerful encouragement comes from knowing that other people have met tremendous struggle with tremendous effort. Although Bobby Fischer was the greatest chess player, I’m much more impressed by someone with learning disabilities or excessive brain damage, who learns to play chess at all.
That sort of effort is also more relevant to my life, knowing that my life will definitely include numerous forms of adversity—as opposed to the absolute guarantee that my life will not include a stint in Cirque du Soleil.
My yoga practice is the reflection, the tablet displaying my life lessons. I look to it for inspiration on handling intense challenges. And so I seek out people who have transcended challenges. Because asana is visible, it is the most obvious manifestation to find examples.
I am fortunate to have witnessed asana practitioners who faced tremendous challenges and set tremendous examples. I have had students with intense challenges. Cancer. Traumatic childbirth. HIV. Catastrophic injury. PTSD.
Such as the diabetic who had never been athletic or even in shape in his life, yet still studied with me and practiced sun salutations every day. He never discovered a latent talent for asana, but he did leverage his discipline and change his life. He became stronger, leaner, and more confident than he ever thought possible because of his effort.
I’m more flexible than he is, but so what? I care about how I face setbacks far more than how I can maneuver my body.
Or a woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 30, but still attended yoga classes between chemotherapy treatments. One day, I asked about her graduate studies in physical therapy, which she had continued, without interruption and without complaint, after her diagnosis. Beaming, she said she was having a great time. She was finishing a semester-long project for which she had to learn a new physical skill, and she had chosen breakdancing. She liked it much more than she expected.
I am also much stronger and more flexible than she, but how does that mean anything? I am interested in cultivating that kind of grace and determination. In that moment, all of my excuses—for nearly everything, really—were invalidated. How amazingly fortunate for me. What she had wasn’t a miraculous talent, but a miraculous effort. She chose to live the way she wanted; she chose not to be defeated.
When I want to cave to the tantrums of my ego, when I want to make excuses because something doesn’t come naturally, I remember these examples. They remind me that I evolve and grow regardless of talent; they sustain my faith that I can thrive regardless of starting condition. People often make (lousy) excuses because they don’t have talent. But there is always space to try harder.
The widow in the parable reminds me of true generosity, which comes from effort. My gymnast friends remind me of proper perspective, rather than unfair comparisons—that my efforts in the present matter more than what I have or haven’t done in the past.
The role models of effort are the ones I need—people who ruin my false justifications for my fear, my laziness, my stagnation. Years of practice have proved that showing up is often the hardest step. Lack of talent is not the problem. Lack of will certainly can be.
When I’m going through some ordeal, what fortifies my chances for success is not some miraculous talent. Effort—the continual willingness to gather myself at the marrow, gather all my grit, and confront my obstacles, be they within or without—is what buttresses the triumphs. What matters is that you work on it. I can do this because I work on it.
All those videos on the internet of crazy asanas—they’re ok. I can dispense two or three minutes of my attention on them. But the examples of people living intense grace—I want to devote a lot more time and attention to those lessons.
No disrespect if flashy demonstrations are meaningful—we are all moved by different things. But I’ve learned that there’s nothing wrong with me for being more attuned to the practical miracles, which I now recognize abound in the world. They just garner less attention.
SK © 2015