When you think of yoga, what words come to mind? If they are stretching, flexibility, and strength, you might feel discouraged if you can't even reach your toes. Five years ago, I had trouble touching my toes - in fact, some mornings putting on my shoes was a struggle due to back pain.
When people find out I teach yoga, they often say, “I would like to do that, but I’m not flexible enough.” This is such a common misconception that I wanted to address it again.
Most people grow up with some exposure to competitive sports and we have trouble not viewing every physical endeavor with a competitive mindset. This competitive nature is part of our conditioning. Yoga is not a competitive sport. We look at others and think to ourselves, “they are more fit, more flexible, or more coordinated”. This comparison we make with others is automatic in our culture, especially since we are socially conditioned to feel like we are not good enough.
Therefore, we have to notice when we are making comparisons to others, and make a conscious effort to accept ourselves just where we are right now. Otherwise, this competitive view will either cause us to push ourselves too far, resulting in injury, or leave us feeling inadequate and bad about ourselves.
How can we notice if we are pushing ourselves too hard? By paying attention to the breath. It will get faster, tighter, and more shallow. Our breath tells us everything. We just need to listen to it instead of listening to our thoughts.
The idea that we are perfect just as we are right now is profound, and if we can hold that view in every moment, it will make a huge difference in our lives. This is a practice in finding a sense of completeness in everything we are doing. We spend so much of our lives thinking about what we’re going to do next, that we rarely enjoy the moment we are in right now.
We manage to rarely connect with the present moment and find fulfillment there because we are hoping to find happiness in the future. And the future never arrives. We are always anticipating; planning; hoping; wanting things to be different than they actually are.
Many people start practicing yoga for reasons such as a desire for increased flexibility, or getting in shape. It doesn’t really matter what the beginning motivation is. However, if someone starts practicing daily, I believe that those reasons will automatically change. As you start to become aware of, and witness consciousness, and start to become aware of the connection between the body, the mind and the emotions, you realize that you can’t separate these things. You’ll realize that they are all so intertwined, and it’s one of the things that becomes fascinating about the practice. You do feel the physical benefits of it, which are great, but the psychological benefits are so much more rewarding. Then, how flexible you are becomes insignificant.
The reason we say we are “practicing yoga”, is because there is no ultimate goal. You can feel the benefits even if you never “achieve” a particular pose. Simply, each yoga pose is about moving our body in two opposite directions. (ie: one hand reaching upward while the other presses into the ground; one foot reaching back while the other pushes forward; reaching our crown upwards as we ground down into the floor). These movements expand and stretch out the body. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. As soon as we understand these opposing movements, we find a sense of ease and balance in our practice.
Once people have tasted what it feels like to tap into this mind-body connection, there will be a natural inclination to know when your body needs to move and when it needs to be still. Commit to practicing some type of movement, along with some time being still, each and every day,
Contrasting the stillness and the movement, and keeping that awareness throughout the day, has profound effects in everyday life. Even if it’s a small amount of time, just ten minutes, it’s more important to make it a daily habit that it is to spend an hour 2-3 times a week. With the Ashtanga practice, it’s so easy to do it when you wake up each morning at home, and with the openness you create by moving your body, ending with a meditation, feels so natural. You can either end lying down in a long Savasana or taking a shorter Savasana and then doing a sitting meditation.
When meditating, or finding stillness, if it is uncomfortable to sit upright and focus on the breath, it will be too distracting. Simply lie down if that is what your body needs. If the body is the vehicle, you have to park the vehicle and not worry about it so much. In stillness, in order to go inward, we need to park the vehicle.
The reason there is resistance to stillness is because we know our thoughts are there waiting for us. The emotions, the judgments, the planning, the self-doubt; it’s all there waiting for us to slow down so it can come to the forefront. And we don’t like it; so we stay busy, distracted, and pushing those things away that we don’t want to deal with. The paradox is that only by dealing with them do they actually move through us and dissipate.
So whether you can sit in lotus or struggle to cross your legs at all, yoga is for you. As Krishnamacharya says, "Everybody can practice yoga - as long as they can breathe."
My hope is that we can all make the time to devote to these practices each and every day and further the enlightenment of all beings. Happy New Year!
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I write about human behavior, meditation, body awareness, and a variety of other things that pique my interest.