The elephant at the piano

As a child, I saw a Gary Larson cartoon that I still remember, because it captured a feeling I had even then. An elephant, on stage in a crowded concert hall, is sitting at a piano, his ridiculously large legs dangling by his side. He’s thinking to himself, “What am I doing here?”

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This cartoon captures the feeling you may have when you’re faced with something new. You’re unprepared and anxious, and may literally feel like you’re in the wrong room, that you’re not supposed to be there.

I’ve had this feeling so many times that I now recognize it as familiar. I had it before my first attempts at public speaking, and publishing something I had written. I had it when I was supposed to “manage” other people, and when I had my first child.

In developing my latest habit, though, I’m learning a better way to approach new things.

The elephant on the yoga mat

I still remember my first yoga class. It was over a decade ago. Trying to impress my girlfriend (now my wife), I went with her to an intermediate class. It didn’t go well.

While she was effortlessly doing all the poses, I couldn’t even understand the words the teacher was saying. “Downward dog?” “Chataranga?” He kept telling me to breathe in and out in sync with my movement, but I gave up trying to follow him. I was happy to breathe at all! I kept looking at my watch. “How much longer?”

Although I knew the benefits of yoga were undeniable, I couldn’t help but feel like the elephant at the piano, that this new experience just “wasn’t me.” Every few years, prodded by my wife, I might try again. But the same feelings would crop up.

Lessons from an inflexible yogi

Now a decade later, with my own yoga mat and a regular habit, I’m learning how to deal with that “elephant at the piano” feeling. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

Start where you are. Instead of comparing myself to my wife, an accomplished expert, I should just compare myself to myself, and focus on my personal development.

It’s a practice that takes practice. The goal isn’t to “be good at yoga” so much as it is to practice yoga. The doing is the point. Any advance I might make in my mental or physical health will only come as a consequence of practicing. 

Pay attention! When my mind wanders, I miss the teacher’s instructions and stand there dumbly, looking around the room so I can see what I’m supposed to do. Or, worse, I simply fall down. Nothing teaches me to be present like trying to balance on one leg.

“Do what is accessible to you.” This is one of my favorite expressions that teachers use. While many personal development programs seem bent on suffering - “No pain, no gain!” - yoga teachers provide a safe environment for me to try new things, to literally and figuratively stretch myself.

The next time you’re the elephant at the piano

When I enter the yoga studio now, I know I’m in the right room. Not because I’m an expert, but because I’ve accepted that I’m a beginner, that I can make progress at my own pace. I’ve accepted that, with effort and attention, I will gradually improve and realize a range of benefits.

The next time you’re anxious at trying something new - “I can’t play this thing! I’m a flutist, for crying out loud.” - take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to start where you are.

With practice and dedication, your initial anxiety will be replaced with calm and self-compassion, and eventually lead to new feelings of confidence and clarity.