“Be ugly and wrong.”
My bare feet absorb the warm, honey glow of the wood floor. My arms hover in front of me as if I were hugging a beach ball. But I’m not, there’s nothing in my arms and they are beginning to quiver a bit from the effort. I am exactly mirroring the teacher at the front of the room. Knees slightly bent, spine straight. Or at least I think I am. He moves his arms over his head, I do too. It takes me a minute to register his words.
It is the spring of 2008. I am paying rapt attention to my teacher’s every move, trying very hard to embody the qualities of the perfect student. Focused, quiet, thoughtful, unobtrusive. This is my first experience with qi gong and I am floundering. My yoga practice of 10 years and recent yoga teacher training has not prepared me for this. I thought I would be good at qi gong. I can’t get the breathing right, always seeming to exhale when the teacher said inhale. Moving stiffly against the inhale, rushing through the exhale, anxious that I’m doing it “right,” and thoroughly distracted but holding all of my feelings tightly under wraps. Or so I thought.
“Be ugly and wrong.”
I am aware that I am constantly struggling to be beautiful and right. I want desperately to be good and often find myself striving to be perfect. I went to college because my parents insisted. Once in college, I was the perfect student—participating in classroom discussions, handing in perfectly annotated papers, becoming president of clubs, making honor roll, winning awards and scholarships. After college, I strived to be the perfect employee—doing more than was expected, submitting neat, careful work. When I succeeded in attaining my role of perfect student and perfect employee, I felt exhausted, hollow and unsatisfied; when I didn’t, I felt rebellious, righteous and energized. I even tried to excel at things that were completely new to me–like learning to play the guitar and qi gong. If I were just pretty and good enough, then I would fit in. If I wore the right clothes, said and did the right things, people would like me, accept me. Love me. And here was a teacher suggesting that there was another way, that I do the opposite of my life-long habit. That I let go of getting qi gong right and just allow—allow my body to move in the way it moved, breathe in the way it breathed, and drop the striving to be anything other than me.
I am a lot of things—smart, funny, generous, nurturing, kind. But I can also be competitive, rigid, hateful, arrogant, and vindictive. What I realized then, and in deeper ways now, is that what I really long for is to be myself in all things, authentically myself. And I am not always pretty and kind. I am also ugly and wrong. But, by avoiding those aspects of self which are not pretty or “right”—I am actually disowning parts of my self—cutting myself off from entire aspects of my power including juicy creativity and increased physical energy. In my life, the ugly and wrong looks pretty benign: it’s the part of me that plays in the dirt, walks around barefoot until my feet are filthy, allows my dogs to track mud into my home and not clean it up, leaves dishes in the sink when company is coming, goes kayaking when I have work to do, doesn’t respond to phone calls or emails. And more intense ways too: like allowing my words to go unfiltered and expressing how I’m feeling even if it may create a mess. Sharing my vulnerability in a classroom of students by revealing how anxiety gnaws at me when I am speaking in front of a group. Expressing my anger and grief with other people present.
Flash forward to 2015—another sunlit classroom, other teachers demonstrating movement. Watching their bodies is like watching ribbons unfurl in the air. My upper chest tightens and my throat squeezes with envy. Their bodies move like wild animals—graceful, relaxed, fluid, effortless with an economy of movement. I can’t dance—my hip circles are more like hip octagons. I’m moving against the flow of my fellow students because I’m so off beat. My rusty joints clunk around my body. Like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz—I am creaky and in need of oiling. The teachers unfold a similar message for me: meet your body in this moment, create the movement as it lives in your body. My brain lights up. It struck me like poetry, this new incarnation of “Be ugly and wrong.” I got it—move, in the soft animal way that your body moves, even if it looks nothing like the teacher’s movement.
Today, I am able to draw on this experience as I offer yoga dance classes: I can share with my students how, although I may appear to them graceful, fluid, and rhythmic, I started out ugly and wrong.
Can I begin to accept myself just as I am? Awkward dance moves, gray hair, full hips and thighs, messy words, anxiety, anger, vulnerability, grief? Ooooph, a difficult task to be sure.
But, maybe, if we can offer ourselves one drop of kindness in those places that are deeply uncomfortable, we can reclaim some of that vast ocean of self that we have disowned—including juicy creativity and untapped reserves of physical energy. Can we offer tender curiosity to those places that feel ugly and wrong? Can we offer just a tiny bit of friendly awareness to those dark and shadowy places that we routinely ignore but that have potent messages for us? And, maybe, if we can do that for ourselves, we can do it for each other too. Maybe we would notice how breathtakingly beautiful and fragile we all are.
I realize now that there’s no objectively right way to breathe or to hold a yoga pose or to dance or sing, or be a friend or a student or a teacher. There is the way that is connected with you or the way that is disconnected from you. It’s up to you—remain connected with you—the star within—or disconnect and try to follow someone else’s star.
I hope this gives you courage. And I’ll do my best to risk stepping out of my comfortable and accustomed roles and be authentic, to know and accept and be kind to myself, and maybe, together, we can meet up and accept our differences and celebrate our similarities—dancing our way into acceptance of dirty feet and tender hearts.
Go ahead. Be ugly and wrong.
With gratitude to Chris Ferni, Dan Leven, Heather Bilotta, and Sage Brody Peeler