If you practice yoga long enough, one day some random stranger will probably come up to you after class and say, “You have such a beautiful practice!” This happened to me the other day. I was practicing next to a heavily tattooed man — a serious yogi with all the high-end gear and accoutrements — and I recall being astounded by how much he was sweating all over the place. After class, as I was gathering my belongings, he came over to me and told me that he thought I had a beautiful practice.
My response was a mix of embarrassed laughter and befuddlement. No one has said something like this to me in a long time, not since I busted up my shoulder and had to take almost two years off from physically rigorous yoga. Prior to my injury, though, people would say things like this to me quite often (mostly because they were wowed by my yoga acrobatics, I think), but I never really figured out how to respond properly.
So what is the proper response? How does one graciously accept a compliment like this, without being egotistical or cocky about it?
Unfortunately, I’ve never been good at giving or receiving compliments. This was not something I grew up with in my household. In many ways, my upbringing was stereotypically Asian (think “Tiger Mom”), where anything short of “perfect” was failure. And even “perfect” was never quite good enough.
So when someone tells me I have a beautiful yoga practice, I am never quite sure how to respond, or even what to make of the remark. Is it genuine? Is this person making fun of me? How could they say something so utterly wrong?
My teacher Raghunath had a great way of dealing with compliments (and he got lots of them). In response to someone praising his asana practice, Raghu would always deflect the praise by saying, “Everything I can do, I do by the mercy of my teachers.”
This statement, to me, speaks volumes of truth about yoga and how people learn it. Were it not for our teachers, and their teachers before them, we wouldn’t know how to do the simplest asanas. And were it not for our teachers taking an active interest in us, we could never progress to more challenging asanas.
At the end of the day, though, I find that compliments about my asana practice make me uncomfortable because they suggest something that I don’t want to believe about my practice, namely, that the power of my practice is in the outward appearance of my asanas. I have had many days of practice where I was fueled by my ego, jumping up and around like a circus performer, but my mind and intention were totally in the wrong place. Is this really a beautiful practice? I don’t think so. But then what does a beautiful practice look like?
I’m starting to think that a beautiful practice doesn’t look like anything in particular. A beautiful yoga practice is one that goes beyond the mat, beyond the toned muscles and sexy yoga pants. I can’t say for sure what it is, but whatever a beautiful yoga practice amounts to, it’s almost certainly not something you can take a picture of and put on the cover of Yoga Journal.