By Krista E. Hughes
As I got on my yoga mat last week, I thought about my bio for this blog series. “Did I really say that I humble myself on my yoga mat?” This surprised me a bit.
In my writing and teaching, I tend to problematize the Christian notion of humility, for too often this apparent virtue has been used to keep oppressed persons in their places; in turn, it has worked against their full flowering into the image of God. That is, “humility” has functioned to further disempower those who already lack—due to unjust social structures and cultural prejudices—the power of self-determination… a power integral to the flourishing of human dignity. Too often, even in the Christian tradition, “humility” has worked contrary to the wisdom of church father Irenaeus that “the glory of God is each human fully alive.”
Yet the humility I discover in my yoga practice, paradoxically, serves to empower me. You see, I am a perfectionist. At a young age I absorbed all too deeply the counsel that “whatever is worth doing is worth doing well,” which I heard as “whatever is worth doing is worth doing flawlessly.” While my perfectionism is a blessing, it is likewise a curse. It keeps me from taking creative risks… from sharing my unique insights with the world… from pursuing challenging yet worthwhile relationships with those who are not like me. Always striving for the ideal, perfectionism fails to acknowledge, much less embrace, limitations. I judge myself harshly for not accomplishing enough in a day or week or month or year, ignoring that my stores of time and energy are limited.
On my yoga mat however I am more accepting of my limitations. As a child, I was brainy, inquisitive, and creative, but not agile, fast, or coordinated. In short, I was not athletic. Thus I come to my mat with very low expectations, recognizing the limits of my abilities. There are certain poses I simply am not flexible enough or strong enough or open enough to achieve. So, I practice bit by bit, working with my limitations rather than against them. And every so often, I am shocked at what I am able to achieve. “Side crow?!” The pose is rarely graceful, but I am astonished by the strength and flexibility I’ve achieved over time.
My yoga practice has given me new insight into humility’s capacity to empower. When we humble ourselves before the limitations of our lives instead of fighting against them in the name of some ideal vision, we may find that we achieve more—and perhaps more importantly that our measures of achievement shift to something deeper. This acceptance is not resignation but a willingness to open ourselves to a grace that might just break the economy of achievement altogether.