There’s a point at which my workout—most often yoga—ceases to be the invigorating, grounding practice that helps me build strength, balance and flexibility, and becomes just another place where I’m full of judgment and self-doubt. Instead of cultivating awareness, I pursue perfection; instead of loving my body, I curse my short, tight hammies and covet the open hips of the skinny model on the cover of my Yoga Journal magazine. I’d like to wipe the floor with that Zen expression of hers, I think to myself. This isn’t why I practice yoga: for bragging rights, so I can build a tight ass and enviable calves and fancy myself better than other women. It’s moments like these when I have to step back, take a beat, and remember what brought me to the mat in the first place, and what I’ve learned from my yoga practice.
Five Life Lessons I’ve Learned from My Yoga Practice
1. Practice with the body you have today.
This one I learned from a teacher along the way, but it was so long ago that I can’t remember who. She said it often during class, trying to prevent students from straining or pushing for poses that were out of our grasp.
She’d encourage us to be attentive to what our bodies had to share with us, what the soles of our feet, our breathing, our joints and muscles, were communicating.
“Don’t worry if you were in the full expression of this pose yesterday,” she’d intone around the room as our sweaty bodies rose up and down in Sun Salutations, or as we kneeled on our mats, lowered our heads into our hands, pressed into our elbows, and lifted our hips in pursuit of headstand. “Practice with the body you have today,” she’d say.
Detach from yesterday’s practice; all that matters is this moment. This lesson helps me to let go of the past. It keeps me humble. So much of our life is repetitive: we perform the same tasks at our job; we have the same conversations with our colleagues, our relatives; we think that after enough time passes that we ought to be making progress. But in order to avoid self-judgment, self-doubt, that is so often an insidious part of our lives, I must remember to be with my body, my skills, and my relationships as they are today.
2. Keep breathing.
The breath is a barometer of how you feel. About everything.
So often we breathe too shallow, taking a minimal amount of air into our lungs; women especially feel a great pressure to hold our stomachs in, to pretend for ourselves or for others that we have the flat bellies and the tight bodies the media tells us we should have. When we take the time to soften in our abdomens and breathe deeply, we teach our bodies to relax; we trigger a response in the parasympathetic system that encourages digestion and relaxation of our experience.
When I’m on my mat and panting through a particularly tough vinyasa, I know that I’m pushing my body too far. In my practice, like in other parts of my life, if I tune in to my breathing, it will tell me how I’m engaging what’s happening, and by changing my breath I can change my mood. Practicing a deep, even in-and-out breath in the midst of a tough yoga practice helps me to cultivate that same nourishing breath when life is tough.
In the middle of a difficult workday, when I’m dealing with any kind of conflict, or even if I’m just stuck in traffic, deep breathing can help me slow my heart rate and change my perspective. There is no problem so big that it can’t be helped, even just a little, by taking a few deep, cleansing breaths.
3. Shtira sukkah asana.
This one comes straight out of the Yoga Sutras (Part II, verse 46), a collection of meditations and guidelines for yoga written by an Indian sage named Patanjali. You say, “SHTEER-ah SOOK-ah AH-sah-Na”, which literally means, “steadiness and comfort in the pose.”
Or, to put it another way, “Asana [yoga poses] must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation*.” I learned this sutra from Patricia, my first Ashtanga teacher at a studio in Edgewater. She taught a wonderful community class every Sunday night at 6 pm, and for more than a year I went to her class, unrolled my mat, and muscled my way through five sets of Sun Salutation A, three sets of Sun Salutation B, and a modified Primary Series.
Gritting my teeth and willing my improved balance the whole time, I listened while she reminded us that our poses shouldn’t have the kind of jaw-clenched strength and blind ambition that I was using, that it’s so easy to develop in our ambition-driven society. Poses should be both steady and comfortable, a mix of strength and softness. If that’s not a metaphor for life, I don’t know what is.
Any time I feel myself wanting to muscle through, to PUSHPUSHPUSH, I remind myself that I can achieve both strength and ease. My effort, in pursuit of anything, should be sustainable, not burning so high that I’ll flame out quickly, nor so low that I’ll never get anything accomplished.
4. Don’t take the practice too seriously.
I keep coming back to this, on and off the mat, because I like to take yoga, and life, Very Seriously. I mean, the neti pot, the mala beads, the castor oil baths, the whole nine yards. So it’s good for me to remember that yoga is as much about exploration, about good, old-fashioned play, as it is about spiritual union or enlightenment. Looking for the places where play presents itself in life is important, too.
When we can laugh about what happens in us, with us and to us, it takes the pressure off. So what if not every word is perfect in your presentation, or if the marvelous plan you cooked up suddenly isn’t working; how can you play with your plan, maybe not hold it as quite so precious, and see what kind of beauty and fun you can discover? You make a mistake? Laugh at yourself; it takes the sting out of feeling foolish, and makes the learning easer to absorb.
5. Eyes on your own mat.
Sounds like the lesson from a kids yoga class, but we adults have the tendency to compare ourselves to others just as often as our young ones. After practicing yoga for more than ten years, it’s sometimes easy for me to look at the Flexie on the other side of the room and think that I should be able to achieve an expression of One Legged Pigeon pose as full and effortless as hers seems to be. I hate when this happens.
Suddenly I’m no longer in the physical practice or the union of body and mind that brought me to the mat; now I’m just coveting the gifts of another, or worse, hating on her, with her colorful clothes and her designer mat, for “having a better practice than I do.” All of us, somewhere, are going to encounter someone who’s more advanced than we are, or who has a greater aptitude than we do, whether it’s for yoga or running, for making friends or impressing the boss.
When I let my eyes, and therefore my consciousness, stray from my own practice and begin to pay more attention to others and their skills and abilities, I abandon myself and my practice. I work to keep my presence of mind with my own practice, to observe without judgment, and to love myself for who I am, where I am. If I must look at the Flexie in her advanced expression of King Dancer, I send her a little love and joy, and keep a little for me, too. She is where she is, and I am where I am, and it’s all lovely.
*from The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, by T.K.V. Desikachar. 1995 by InnerTraditions International: Rochester, Vermont.