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Lions Roar : November 2013
“YOU SHOULD DO YOGA,” my friend told me. “It really helps with anxiety.” You know what actually helps with anxiety? Not listening to people who make you anxious. Of course, I didn’t say this to my friend. I was too busy pretending to listen to her. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy to block out the internal dialogue between I and me that had begun when I was six or so. I was the one who made me really anxious. So I and me went down to the yoga studio the next day. We both thought it was absurd. The little room was not dark enough to conceal that it was filled with scantily clad women—and a few guys who had obvi- ously come for the scantily clad women. I spent the next thirty minutes trying to convince myself that I was not one of those guys. We were instructed to breathe deeply, but I kept choking on the incense that was burning at my feet. We were instructed to sit quietly—to touch our toes, to make butterfly wings with our legs, to sit cross-legged—while a mixture of world music and hipster pop kept us company. The music was pretty good and I started to sing along—to myself, of course—though I suspect that the slight beating of my dancing butterfly legs gave me away. Perhaps the instructor disapproved because the music suddenly faded out. It was in this moment of supposed silence that the absurdity of yin yoga came home to us—I and me. Sit on a mat, burn some incense, play some music, “just be,” and don’t think of anything. Don’t think of anything! Anything: shoes, ice cream, ice cream in shoes, ice cream on shoes, summer, mother, brother, dripping, zoo, lions, tigers, bears, oh my, elephant. Don’t think of the elephant! Elephant. Elephant. Elephant! That was enough. I and me came to a rare moment of agree- ment: “Get out of here!” And I listened. As it turns out, it is not customary to leave in the middle of a class, and certainly not cus- tomary to slam the door of the studio behind you. I really hope the racket didn’t interrupt anyone’s journey to enlightenment. Yoga, in Sanskrit, means yoke. Like the thing that ties cattle to a wagon, not like the thing inside an egg. And like the thing that ties cattle to a wagon, yoga is meant to connect you to— well, I don’t know what exactly—but it’s meant to connect you to something greater than your petty worries. I, however, knew that there was nothing greater than my petty worries. This was the most valuable lesson that ten years of philosophy classes had Don’t Think of the Elephant! The yoga teacher’s instruction was not to think of anything, but what do you do when pushing thoughts away just makes them get bigger? JOHN KAAG on looking the elephant of pain squarely in the face. ILLUSTRATIONBYHEIDIKALYANI JOHN KAAG is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2013 23