Boredom: It Could Happen To You

I’m an object in motion.  Watch me try to sit still: some part is always agitating.  My foot swings under the table, my fingers tap my water glass, I twirl my hair. Even in meditation my torso spontaneously gyrates above my pelvis.

            And that’s only what you can see on the outside.  Under the surface, my mind darts from scene to scene, memory to memory, fear to fear, ranging the nebulous zones of “What if?” and “What next?”

I’ve been blessed with a lot of what Ayurvedic medicine calls “vatta,” the energy associated with the winds of change.   People dominated by vatta get bored easily. Routines stifle them; restlessness plagues them.

            So you can imagine why it wasn’t long before I started to chafe against the repetitive nature of yoga practice.  Not enough going on—or not enough new stuff to snag my interest.  As a self-diagnosed sufferer of  ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), my mind wicks away from the matter at hand and gloms on to whatever sexier object it can find, just as a child’s eye gravitates to the shiniest bauble. As I internalized the postural instructions enough to shift to auto-pilot, my flagging attention would troll the mats around me, silently critiquing everyone else’s poses. Once I got the gist of the typical class sequence, I would calculate how far along we were, and when it would end—even if I’d been looking forward to the class all day.   As we held a pose, I’d wonder when the teacher would allow us to come out and move on to the next. The emptiness of those long gaps in stimulation proved grueling. I wanted out, though I had no idea where to go.

            I bottomed out on boredom about four years into my Ashtanga yoga practice.  In Mysore-style Ashtanga, each student progresses through the fixed series of poses at his or her own pace. Only you don’t get to decide your pace—your teacher does. When your teacher thinks you’re ready, he or she offers you the next pose. I moved through the first two series at a good clip, in large part due to my natural flexibility and growing strength.  Then I hit a plateau—or my teacher perceived that I did.  For four and a half years, I stayed stuck on the same pose, while everyone around me moved on.

As the months dragged on, my frustration turned to anger (at my teacher, who clearly didn’t see that I was ready to go on). Then, when I realized that my anger was consuming more energy than the practice, the anger cooled to indifference. The more I detached (from my teacher’s inscrutable tactics, from my yearning to progress, from what I was doing altogether), the less present I was for the daily endeavor.  Practice became as mechanical as tying my shoelaces. My interest waned, my enthusiasm faded. I had no more idea why I was showing up six mornings a week than a hamster knows why it treads the wheel.  Devotion had devolved into compulsion.  I was bored; yoga was boring me.

            To make things worse, life was boring. I had dutifully rearranged my schedule around those early-morning practices. My nightlife petered out with my 9:30 curfew.  Morning practice was followed by a string of private lessons that kept me zigzagging up, down, and crosstown until dinnertime. In some weird energetic mirroring of my own plight, many of my students seemed to plateau as well. I suspect we bored each other, or the yoga bored us both.  I found myself teaching the same things over and over again, recanting the same words like a catechism, one eye on the clock. I felt like a bit of a fraud.

            Yet my stubborn streak would not let go.  Yoga had once been a source of joy, a constant unfolding, the highlight of my day. Tired of questioning myself, I asked my teacher what was wrong with me. Did others get bored?   Was this practice right for me?  His answer:  you must do a practice for twelve years before you can tell if it’s right for you. 

            This twelve-year statute struck me as a bit arbitrary, so I went back to the scriptures I knew at the time.  The Yoga Sutras (date), the primary text of Classical Yoga, stated three requirements for practice: that it be done with regularity, for a long time (though it didn’t specify how long), and with devotion. Well, I had the first two in place, but compulsion had supplanted devotion.  I wasn’t sure how to retrieve devotion single-handedly, so I decided to trust my teacher and carry on. All the while, I worried that my bad attitude was mitigating any fruits I might reap from my efforts.  I’d learned that most alternative “therapies” (acupuncture, meditation, crystals, energy healing), only work if the patient/client/student believes they will.  Though what I experienced was boredom, what I felt underneath was a dwindling faith in the power of yoga to transform me and my life. That faith had originally come to me unsolicited, and I had no idea how to get it back.

            My later studies of Rajanaka Tantra under Douglas Brooks offered a new perspective on my dilemma.  Brooks pointed out how we all get hooked on immediate gratification. We do something and expect a reward—in fact, we do something to get the reward. In Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, the Tibetan Buddhist Trongpa Rinpoche warns that spiritual“seekers” can get as caught up in spiritual goals (for example, “enlightenment” or “serenity”) as the organization man climbing the corporate ladder.  The Yoga Sutras warn us that the siddhis—supernatural powers like seeing the future and shrinking to the size of an atom– that allegedly come to those who practice can be the greatest obstacle to spiritual growth. The siddhis appeal to the ego’s need to feel special and to have others recognize us as gifted—and hence lead us into the trap of egotism, of pride. Whether it’s a new pose or the promise of enlightenment, we all grasp after those gold rings and feel cheated when we can’t reach them.  So there I was, greedy for more poses, anxious for my teacher’s validation that I was progressing, that my efforts were paying off. Off the mat, I kept wondering why I was no closer to the perfect Relationship—to be honest, no closer to any relationship—than when I began my practice six years before.  Clearly, all that yoga had pried open my body but not my heart. The shell had not been cracked.

            I’d like to be able to report back with some neat solution to the boredom that is bound to plague you at some point in your practice—but I can’t. (You’ll know you’re bored if you manifest any combination of the following symptoms: showing up late, leaving early, missing class altogether; oddly powerful and diverting crushes on your teacher or the student two mats over; equally irrational animosity toward your teacher or the student two mats over; a seemingly impassable physical roadblock; a mysterious or elusive injury that defies diagnosis yet debilitates you.)  “Yoga” is often translated as “union”; the word comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj,” “to yoke” two things together. The first time you roll out a mat, you put yourself in relationship with yoga. (An old boyfriend once commented that I didn’t need a boyfriend because I had yoga.) And like any relationship—marriage, roommate, parent/child, boss/employee—your relationship with yoga will go through ups and downs, peaks of ecstasy trailed by tundras of doubt and disaffection.

            Of course, the relationship here is not really you-yoga practice or even you-yoga-tradition but rather you-yourself. Most of us in the West spend our whole lives running away from, or at least avoiding, ourselves.  We pursue careers, we pursue material abundance, we pursue potential partners. We even pursue spiritual practices. But not until we find ourselves in some desperate pickle—a divorce, the loss of a loved one, a health crisis, a layoff—are we really ready to retrieve our inner selves. (The spiritual bookshelves are full of testimonies by earnest seekers who spent years in Buddhist meditation, Judeo-Christian worship, or some such—only to have the lid blown off the whole charade by some life-shattering event. At which point they were forced to retool their practice or abandon it as futile.) Then, as the patient therapist or support group or sympathetic friend opens up that space, we grovel toward a quagmire of inner distress. Blind rage!  Bottomless sorrow! Seething envy! It’s a miracle we’ve functioned at all!

            Hatha yoga is the stealth bomber of spiritual paths.  It draws us in with a physical practice that promises long, lean muscles, optimal balance, strength, and flexibility. As we engage in the practice of moving from pose to pose, we start to notice things about our bodies.  My quads are tight; my left shoulder is stiffer than my right; my balance sucks.  If we stay with it, we start to notice how we are noticing these things: how our mental patterns play out over and over again.  One of mine is to always see the worst in my pose, in my body, in myself. Another is to endlessly compete: with myself, with others, with some unattainable standard that like the proverbial carrot keeps sliding back as I move forward.  I obsess, I ruminate, I doubt. 

            Of course, I have some brighter sides as well: a keen eye for the absurd; a ready laugh; a quick and a curious mind.  Whatever. Whatever’s inside, yoga will illuminate. A lot of it will make us uncomfortable, and for many boredom is the best screen against discomfort. Like depression, boredom is not so much a feeling as a lack of feeling, or an attempt to deny feeling.

The Tantrikas suggest two causes of boredom: 1) lack of immediate gratification (proof that our practice and our lives are “advancing”), and 2) lack of connection to our deepest selves, which are our desires. If we cringe and retreat at the first inklings of darkness, we don’t have the chance to ask what the darkness is telling us. I had to learn that my drive to excel, indeed to exceed, came from feeling that I have to earn my place here, that I am not enough. I came to understand that I envy what others had because I’m not clear about what I really want.  I learned that my mind spins round and round when my heart is struggling most to be heard.  No amount of therapy, no intellectual study, could have revealed these visceral truths, which emerged during the most “arid” seasons of my yoga practice.

            Swami Vivekananda once defined love as “pure attention”[footnote].  The greatest gift we can give ourselves in and through yoga is attention.  Yoga, like those other alternative therapies, won’t work unless you work it. You pull out, and, like a spurned lover, so does the power of the practice. You stop being present, and yoga tiptoes out on bare feet while you rest in savasana. Your body may continue to evolve, but your mind, your spirit, and your life probably won’t. They’ll retract or retreat.

So, what to do when boredom strikes?  You can, like my first teacher suggested, just hold steady and stay your course—for twelve years or however long it takes. Or you can shift the outer form of your practice, introducing new challenges (harder poses, longer holdings, or more demanding sequences) to rally your flagging attention.  Or you can do what I finally did, which is attune to your own intention: remember what brought you to the mat, and remind yourself of why you’re there today.

Intentions can be elusive; don’t hurry to find yours.  I’ve found it best to keep asking questions like “Why am I here?”  “How is this practice serving my life and those of others?” “What did I learn today?” until I plumb the depths of my heart’s desire.  Ultimately, we are the students and yoga, the teacher. The search for intention involves listening rather than speaking.  Breathe, pause, and await the tender voice of your own heart.  Practice infused with deep love, with attention from the heart, is never boring.

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