Do You Take Things Personally?

Thanks to pasukaru76 for the image via FlickrI was doing Crossfit for maybe the third time in my life, seeing that my yoga practice wasn’t necessarily giving me enough strengthening or cardio. I've got a background as a yoga teacher, and I've taken some anatomy classes, so I felt these things would give me a leg up on understanding proper form for weight lifting.

I happened to be there with a friend of a friend, Jack, who's been doing Crossfit for quite a while. Over a year, at least.

Anyway, Jack was holding his breath while lifting a heavy weight, and seemed to be struggling. So, I told him that exhaling would give him more muscle support in his core. Though I know he heard me, he just silently looked ahead and continued on, holding his breath.

He seemed really uncomfortable and was clearly not following my suggestion. Then I became uncomfortable. I fixated on this peculiar interaction, wondering why he wouldn’t listen to me. After all, I have some background in fitness, and he doesn’t. Why does he think he knows better than I do? Why isn’t he respecting my thoughts?

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to notice that I was being really protective of my identity as a yoga teacher. My focus narrowed in on myself. Later, I found out that he had specifically been taught to hold his breath by the gym where he first learned lifting form, so this was what he knew to be correct. It didn’t occur to me that maybe he was drawing on some other information he had. I made an assumption that he was actively disagreeing with me, specifically, and I took things personally.

I think there are a lot of things I could pull out of this interaction – the self-focus spiral, the ruminating, the implications of respect. But, what stood out most to me after reflecting on it, was how much I clung to my ‘yoga teacher’ identity.

I’ve recently been attending Buddhist dharma talks at various places (and listening to them online; Here are a ton of free ones), and the concept of identity is covered in anatta or ‘not-self.’ The notion of not-self is not that you don’t have a self, but that no one thing is your self. It says that no one thing defines you, and you are always changing. For example, I’m not a yoga teacher, but someone who sometimes teaches yoga. I’m not a writer, but I sometimes write. 

What’s the benefit of thinking about it this way? It puts space between you and one particular identity. It helps in moments like the one with Jack, allowing me to step back and listen to him without any expectation one way or another. I don’t need to know everything about that subject, and I don’t need to see it as offensive if someone doesn’t take my suggestions. Instead, thinking of myself as “not that” gives me a freedom to be whatever I need to be in any situation. If I had been looking at the situation without clinging so much to this identity, I could have seen that Jack didn’t mean it personally – he just had his own technique.