I may not always act like it, but I am intimidated by people quite often. I’m intimidated by people with good hair or cool clothes or exotic accents. I’m intimidated by successful people and people who act like they don’t care what anyone thinks. I’m intimidated by people who seem older and/or more experienced than me, like parents, or people who have traveled to Africa, or most forty-year-old women.
One forty-year-old woman by whom I’m particularly intimidated is a yoga instructor at the studio where I now do work-exchange. (I work twelve hours a month in exchange for free yoga.) This instructor (I’ll call her Nikola) has all of the attributes that intimidate me: beautiful hair (it’s jet-black and so thick it looks like a horse’s tail), cool clothes (if this is how she dresses for yoga class, I can only imagine her fashionable street attire), and an exotic accent (which involves tongue-trilling and ending most statements with “yes?”)
I had taken a few classes with her before I started work-exchange, and I always came home with stories to tell my boyfriend. “My god,” I said one day, “this instructor is insane. She’s like a Gumby doll! But an inhumanely strong Gumby doll.” I got down on the floor and tried to demonstrate. “First she put her leg behind her shoulder. Then she lifted herself up with one arm and sort of spun around into plank….” At this point, I was rolling around on the ground like an up-turned beetle and Paul was frowning at me. “Well, I can’t do it,” I explained, “but if you saw her, you’d be amazed.”
I’m definitely intimidated by Nikola’s yoga abilities, and her expectations of those who take her class. I always thought I was pretty good at yoga, but in her class I feel like I belong back in the baby pool. I can’t do a headstand. I can’t extend my legs in side crow. When I hop into plank, I’m weak and sloppy, so I’ve gone back to stepping. When she walks around the room, I always wonder if she’s going to stop to correct me, maybe even tell me I belong in level one instead of level two.
“Flexible people sink zey are good at yoga,” she said to the class the other day, “but zhat is not always true, yes?” I felt like she was talking directly to me. “Zey throw themselves into positions without care, and zey often get hurt. It is zee not-so-flexible…zey move slow and discover their body and challenge themselves. Zhat is true yoga, yes?”
She then began to twist herself into some impossible position. I sat on my mat staring at her. My leg was supposed to go where? And how exactly was I going to balance like that?
“We must try, yes?” she said sternly. “How will you know what you are capable of if you do not try?”
With a sigh, I attempted to bend myself into the position. My muscles screamed in protest, and I remembered the time several years ago when I popped my hamstring by throwing myself into a yoga position too quickly. I decided not to push it.
“Do something!” she admonished. “If you don’t do zis, do something else, but don’t just sit!”
Yesterday I went to the last part of my work-exchange training – shadowing the front desk worker. As I sat at the desk waiting for people to arrive, Nikola walked in from the cold, her black hair up in a perfect twist.
“Hi.” I smiled shyly at her. “I’m Eva. I’ve taken your class before; I don’t know if you recognize me. I’m a new work-exhanger. I’m just shadowing to make sure I know how everything works.”
She nodded. “And are you practicing tonight?”
She shrugged off her coat and sat down, pulling her cell phone from her pocket. This was my chance, I thought. Maybe if I talked to her a little I’d realize that she was a nice, normal person and not some intimidating yoga queen looking down on me from the top of the mountain.
“Nikola,” I said, “I’ve got to ask you, where are you from?”
She looked up from her phone, her thinly-plucked eyebrows arching. “Give me second. Let me answer zis text message.”
I felt like she had taken her palm and squashed me like a bug.
“I’m from Slovakia,” she said a moment later. “Prievidza”
“Oh, OK.” I nodded vigorously, smiling, trying to shake off the feeling of being belittled.
“Are you familiar?”
“Oh, no.” I shook my head apologetically. Now I felt stupid, too. Of course I wasn’t familiar with Prievidza. I couldn’t even name a single city in Slovakia, and probably couldn’t point out the country on a map.
“But I sink zey are having shavasana now.” Nikola pointed to the closed door, beyond which was the yoga studio with a class in process. “So we should be quiet. Sound travels easily.”
I hadn’t thought I couldn’t feel any smaller, but now I did. “Oh, of course,” I whispered, nodding. I knew then that I would never feel like Nikola’s equal. I felt like she had established her position, and it was high above me.
I am intimidated by people like Nikola who have worked hard at their craft and accomplished amazing things. It makes me feel like I haven’t been working hard enough. I haven’t accomplished enough.
Maybe most of all I’m intimidated by people who do the activities I consider myself good at – yoga, writing. This is why I’m so intimidated by people who have written successful novels. I have chosen writing as my career, but so far I haven’t had much success.
I’m constantly wondering how much to push myself in order to attain the level of accomplishment I want to reach. I know I need to push myself to write (novels are hard, and they don’t just pour out of me), but on the other hand, if I push too hard I’ll get stressed, frustrated, discouraged, depressed. And I don’t want to live my life filled with those feelings.
It’s a balance, I suppose, just like in yoga. Push too hard, too fast, and you end up hurting yourse, but if you don’t push at all, you’ll never make any gains. If you don’t at least try, you won’t know what you’re capable of. It’s a balance between being stern and being loving with yourself. It’s just hard to figure out the right combination of the two.
Last night in Nikola’s yoga class, I tried to find a balance. I didn’t do all the crazy-hard moves Nikola suggested, but I tried some of them. For inversion practice, instead of taking it easy in shoulder-stand (the way I had last class), I forced myself to do dolphin – the uncomfortable precursor to headstand. But still, when Nikola walked around the room, I felt hyper-aware of her presence, and I stretched harder and adjusted my alignment, imagining myself in her eyes.
“I tend to over-arch my back in zis pose,” Nikola told us towards the end of class. “It is something I am working on. Something I am trying to improve.” So, I thought, she’s not perfect after all.
Of course, deep down, I knew this already. I know that no one, even the most seemingly accomplished, has reached the end of their journey. We’re all struggling up our own personal mountains, and there are no peaks, only places to rest along the way.
In addition to finding balance, I must try to stop feeling so intimidated of people. Stop doing my asanas for the approval of yoga instructors. Stop writing for the purpose of impressing others and getting published. And remember that it’s not a race. I don’t have to slop down novels as fast as I can in order to make progress. Like the non-flexible yogis, I can move slowly, discover my abilities, challenge myself to do new things. Better to move slowly than not at all. And at the end of the day, instead of comparing myself to others and feeling intimidated, I should look at how far I’ve come and feel proud.