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Being asked to smile in yoga (Guest Post)

One of my strategies for supporting my mental health, lower blood pressure and dealing with muscle fatigue from triathlon training is to go to yoga classes and do short routines at home.

There are many schools of yoga, some focus on flowing through postures, others holding postures for long periods of time. I like them all because I always learn new things from each instructor through their approach and methodology.

The one thing I struggle with is being asked to smile during yoga. A few weeks back I was having a run of very stressful days. They were days where it was all I could do to get to work, not cry, then come home and support my family. It is those kind of days where yoga helps me stretch my clenched muscles and relax my face. My typical yoga face is expressionless, flat, and slack-jawed. I feel serene and beyond the stress of my day in that face.

On this night I was in a new class with an instructor I didn’t know so I had no expectations. Her approach is from a restorative yoga perspective and she focuses on alignment. I learned a great deal on how to move my feet to take pressure off my knees, how to use the creases in my wrists to align my arms in plank, really good stuff, then she asked us to smile.

I was so grossly unhappy that day I had used up all my energy just not crying and presenting a neutral face to the world. I have epic grumpy faces and I sometimes post them on my facebook feed because I’m a big drama queen. For example, I made this face once simply because I had to make my own coffee at work one day:

So here I am, barely keeping it together, when the instructor asked us all to smile then went from person to person gently chastising those who weren’t then insisting we smile. She uses this technique as a measure to see if a student is pushing themselves too hard in class. Her thought being if you lose your smile ease back on the stance. It’s a great idea. That night though the effort to try and even gently turn up the corner of my mouth was painful. I was truly sad and the small smile seared a tunnel down into my well of unhappiness and I started to cry. Tears streamed down my face. I just wanted peace that night and here I was openly weeping in front of strangers and an instructor I didn’t know. It felt terrible. I was embarrassed and sad and thankful the lights in the studio were turned down low. I was able to keep myself from sobbing and I went through the postures, tears soaking my mat during child’s pose and downward dog. I got through the class and thought, that will never happen again.

The next week the exact same thing happened. The disconnect between smiling and not feeling happy was just more than I could bear. This was not what I was looking for from my yoga sessions. I stopped going for a couple weeks.

Part of what bugged me was my personal history of receiving messages that, as a women, I ought to always smile, that I should smile to be more pleasing to others, to hide my feelings and be less scary. I think I have a great smile because it is genuine and I don’t stretch my lips across my teeth in a weird, fake way. I am not stingy with my smiles but I also don’t throw them around willy-nilly. More simply put, if I’m happy, I smile.

Fast forward to this past Monday, the smile asking instructor was subbing in for my usual power yoga instructor and I was nervous. It turned out Anita, who runs with Tracy, goes to my gym and was coming to this class. We chatted a bit before class and were laughing at the absurdity of our lives as we grapple with growing humans. (I think we both agree that parenting is, like, way hard.)

Class started and I realized I was a bit self-conscious doing yoga alongside Anita. (Huh, wonder what that was about.) I don’t remember who laughed/groaned/admitted distress first  but I had a lot of fun and when it came to asking us to smile I did and felt great. Maybe I was having a better day, maybe it was being relaxed with my new friend, who knows, but it felt genuine and awesome and that is pretty cool, in fact, it felt a whole lot like this face:

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