I went to a yoga class this weekend and the teacher was someone new to me. It was my same studio in my same small town, but I had never had a class with this particular instructor. She was so friendly and warm. And she was super-fit so I figured if I did everything just like her, then I’d be a size 2 by the morning. I’d like to say the class was high-intensity, but I think that really I have just been away from the studio for about 6 months so laying in the corpse pose for more than 1 minute would have felt high intensity. It was all strength-building stuff which I love. Core and back and legs. Lots of shaking and clenched jaw and big breaths and sweating.
I really enjoyed the class. I was happy to be back on the mat noticing how my own body felt. Noticing my thoughts and releasing them. Finding the edges of my strength and then relaxing just a bit beyond.
But something was missing.
I’ve only ever had yoga instruction from one teacher (mostly). There have been one or two other teachers here and there, but mostly one woman has been my person. She was the first person to ever teach me the basics of yoga four years ago, just after my second son was born. She was the first person who ever witnessed me doing the crow pose. She’s the one who taught me warrior three and happy baby. She’s great at the physical part—noticing when you can shift a half a centimeter with one finger and change the way the whole pose feels. She’s great at the emotional and spiritual parts too. Her language is powerful and she kindly and boldly leads us through what feels like church with her centering scripts. Today, she used the analogy of a conversation with a dear friend to keep bringing us back to the present moment; encouraging us to give ourselves the same respect.
And there’s one phrase she says many, many times during class. And I almost took it for granted until I went to a class without her. It’s the one thing that was missing with the new teacher: “Maybe not.”
My main teacher will guide us into a pose. She’ll then suggest that maybe we bend our arm. Or maybe we set our gaze upward. Or maybe we bend our leg. Maybe we reach just a bit beyond where we are. And then she says, every time: “or maybe not.” Maybe not is code for ‘you don’t have to do what the teacher says.’
It’s another way of reminding you about what’s most important on the mat. What’s most important is not what you think you should do or what the thin lady next to you is doing or even what you did yesterday on the mat. It’s what your body says to do today. So she can kindly suggest it, and then she kindly gives you permission to take whatever shape feels good to you. Maybe you want to do this standing stretch thing, or maybe not. Maybe you should be in child’s pose resting instead.
Maybe not is permission to choose. It’s the anti-should.
‘Maybe not’ is a reminder to listen to your best teacher: not the woman in the front of the room, but the body you are living in right now.
It’s a reminder that yes, you can trust yourself to know what shape you need. You know when to push and when to relax. You know what will serve you well and what won’t. And you can trust that as long as you’re on the mat, there’s no judgement for the choice you make.
There was a series of core work that the new teacher led us through at the end of our practice. Lots of heavy breathing in the room and a little grunting because we were doing a pose called ‘boat’. It sounds lovely, I know. Relaxing, almost. Boat! I’ll do that! It’s like vacation! But it’s really more like abs on fire with your legs in the air. After the third round of these boat things, I was wondering how many more times she’d want us to do it. And then I remembered ‘maybe not.’ So she said once again to lift our legs in the air and I said out loud, ‘or maybe not.’ And everyone in the room giggled and exhaled and relaxed. And I gave myself permission to get out of the boat.
I grew up involved in sports like track and basketball and I would hear daily that I needed to push myself. We used to practice so hard that we’d throw up and our coaches and teammates applauded. So there’s this old story-line in my head from that—and probably also from some of my early workplaces—that says if you don’t push yourself to exhaustion you aren’t really working hard. You’re weak. Lazy. Never going to get any better. Destined to lose. There’s no room for ‘maybe not’ because we were too scared of not improving, not winning. Giving up.
My journey for the last year has been about trusting myself again. It’s never God I lose faith in. God I can trust for sure. When I’m struggling—physically or emotionally—it’s usually because I’ve quit trusting myself. Or I’ve quit listening long enough to even know what my gut is saying. Every day provides hundreds of temptations to turn the volume up so loud that we can’t hear. Every day also provides hundreds of opportunities to get quiet. The magic of ‘maybe not’ is the magic of choice. The magic of maybe not is that you have all you need and you are enough—no matter what you choose. You have permission to go fast or slow. You have permission to push or pull. Either choice is the right choice. You’re enough—with or without the headstand twisty pose. In or out of the boat.