I’ve been reading more and more essays lately on teachers who are almost begging their students to stop doing yoga as just a workout. Pleading with them to let go of fitness-only mindset and really just do the practice. I appreciate this. Because the actual practice is so much more than just toning our abs and firming our butts.
Not too long ago, I had a heart to heart conversation about yoga with another teacher. She’s the classic yoga magazine cover yogini. Cute as ever, and such a great, fit body. She’s super flexible and yoga, in many ways, comes relatively easily her. In her first yoga class, she told me she could put her nose to her knees (so can her mom). It appeared as though she needed no real warm up. Sure, she was a bit sore the next day, but it was a natural for her to do the postures, so she became a teacher. And she’s a good one.
For many of us as we enter this practice, though, a natural ease through the physical postures does not come as easily. For even more of us, a natural ease with the mental & spiritual aspects of yoga can feel even more out of reach.
Our conversation took me back to the start of my own practice, which wasn’t anything like my sweet yogini friend. When I think of how utterly easy it is for her to do almost any posture, I can’t help but reflect on my own practice. My hamstrings are so naturally tight you could probably play a beautiful violin concerto on them. Yet, rather than fight my body’s natural tendencies (and the lessons these limits offer), over the years I have learned to work with them—and give myself plenty of love in the process. Best. Decision. Ever.
What I found as I explored my own history with the practice was interesting. You know when you are new to something and you really, really dig it? You end up getting fanatical about it. You hang out with other yogis and spend more and more time at your favorite yoga studio(s). You search for the right yoga pants, you listen to the coolest music. You want to make sense of it all, and fit it to at least some degree. You dream of quitting your job so you can become a teacher and teach full-time.
After initially establishing my practice, I remember getting such an amazing feeling of being “held” by yoga. I felt the initial stages of liberation. It was helping me in so many ways. I could write pages of bullet lists on the physical benefits alone, never mind the longterm mental and emotional benefits, and my life was flooded with a sense of possibility.
Yet as I started out, a part of me was hoping for the impossible. Though not consciously, I was inwardly hoping that yoga would take away some of life’s suffering, solve some of my problems for me. I had begun to unconsciously wrap myself up in yoga like it was a comfy blanket. I had quietly hoped that, if I did it correctly, it might become my shield against foul weather and hard times.
This isn’t the worst approach to the practice, at least at the start. Get the culture, the speak and the practice down pat. Imitation is the first step for most artists. But in time, we find that this “wrapping” becomes an encumbrance. It begins to feel like we are trapped, subtly suffocating. I think of Donna Farhi who shared a similar experience in her book Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness that her “early obsession with perfecting the forms of yoga brought with it a greater and greater sense of unease and inner dissatisfaction.”
If we start to experience this revelation, our yoga blanket of comfort, our armor, begins to peel away or crack. It’s in this magical moment where many of us finally find our true way into the practice. Farhi then reminds us to find the essence of the practice through the form. The forms become our teachers, but not a means to an end. So whether we can do a posture like Urdhva Dhanurasana (back bend/wheel pose) becomes irrelevant.
At this moment, we have the opportunity to realize that yoga isn’t about wrapping ourselves up in a comfy security blanket. In fact, yoga is the ultimate unwrapping of ourselves. It’s about unwrapping our true nature, slowly and surely, class by class, posture by posture, breath by breath. This understanding, this moment in our practice, is a turning point.
This unraveling of an old sense of identity paradoxically allows us to explore a deeper feeling of true security. If we can simply accept that the sandcastle of life is what it is. We can then begin to build our inner world on a foundation which is much more intangible, yet somehow permanent and secure.
We learn to understand that, like the sculptor’s tools that meticulously pick away at stone or marble not so much to create something as to reveal it (a la Michelangelo), our mindful breath becomes our sculptor’s tool. We begin to unwrap ourselves as we meticulously pick away at our own messy outer shell: the malice, the self-loathing, the bitterness, the sense of failure. In time, we begin to see that what has been underneath this slab of unpolished marble is a timeless inner beauty, a naturally radiant creativity that withstands the ravages of time.