Does having a physically fit, flexible body mean that a yoga student is better at the practice than someone who is not as flexible or in shape? On the surface, our Western mind seems to shout the answer to this question with a resounding “Of course”. But if we look just beneath the surface, the answer may surprise you.
As Westerners, we are notoriously goal-oriented. We want results, and the right results make us happy. As yoga has made its way into the hearts and minds of Western culture in the past century, it has been adapted to meet the mindset of the culture it has entered. However, this mindset, when used on the yoga mat, tends to strips yoga down to its mechanics, and can create a competitive practice that irritates and confounds rather than soothes and uplifts.
One of the many benefits from practicing yoga regularly is a healthy body. Additionally, moving mindfully through the postures offers us an opportunity to focus and still the mind. This, together with coordinated breathing, tends to engage our parasympathetic nervous system, the part that makes us feel calm and centered. As we focus on the energy moving through our bodies in each pose, and focus on coordinating the breath with each movement, our practice becomes a moving meditation.
Yoga literally means to still the mind, to unite with our higher (or infinite) self. The side benefit is that we create a vibrant, healthy body that does not distract us from our true goal: allowing for a steady, calm practice and peaceful mind. If practicing the postures brings irritation and doubt, then we are missing the true practice of yoga, even if we are doing the postures correctly.
The exquisite beauty of yoga is that the postures are there to simply teach us. They are not there for us to conquer. Thus, someone could be very good at the physical postures, but not really good at the practice of yoga, especially if their mind is often frustrated, irritated and competitive. We can have a healthy, flexible body but a frantic mind, and so still be in the situation of suffering. This is when the practice of yoga becomes a mere physical exercise program. This is where we lose the practice of yoga.
In last week’s blog, I discussed how to discover the essence of your yoga practice (a peaceful mind) through the external forms (postures). If we were to single out the physical postures as the sole end result, the practice of yoga would be stripped down to its outer structure and we would lose so much in the process. Yet, over the past decade of teaching, so many of my students have shared their frustration with the focus on external postures as the crowning glory of yoga. Because of this, many have fallen into the seemingly inevitable trap of judging themselves harshly, and unfairly.
One of my long-time students has shared with me that every time she sees one of those covers on popular yoga magazines, she has a mixed feeling of intrigue and self-loathing. “I used to think yoga was about getting the postures right, and there are certain posture I will never be able to do perfectly. Naturally, I used to think I was “less than” and I really didn’t like that feeling. So, I stopped doing yoga for a while. I just kind of gave up. Then, I finally found a teacher where it all made sense. I was reminded that it is more about finding peace and personal power than perfect abs and simple brute strength. Hey, abs are great, but if that was all I wanted, I would have stayed at the gym. With yoga, I am cultivating something deeper. Yoga has been such a gift, because it keeps reminding me that I am enough just as I am.”
Remember, it’s the journey, not the destination when it comes to your personal practice. As you remember this, you set yourself free in that moment. Whether we are a beginner attempting Triangle Pose (Trikonasana) for the first time, or a more advanced student moving through it for the 100th time, it’s how we feel as we move through each posture that makes or breaks our practice.
As the poet Rumi says: Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you truly love. As you listen to the yearnings of why you have come to this ancient practice in the first place, you allow yourself to be gently guided to that sacred place of acceptance and freedom, regardless of your level of flexibility and fitness. Then, finally, the true practice of yoga has begun…