Confession: I came to yoga for the circus tricks. I wanted to be upside down, get bendy like Gumby, and balance on anything that wasn’t my feet. I arrived to my first yoga class delighted at the prospect of spending 90 minutes trying to stand on my hands and stretching my legs into odd shapes. Much to my dismay, my feet remained planted on the mat for a vast majority of the 90, totally exhausting minutes. Worse, the Earth-bound poses were unexpectedly difficult (downward facing dog is a resting pose?!); focusing on my breathing was seemingly impossible; and I certainly didn’t know how to connect to my true nature, whatever that was. I did not see my relationship with yoga lasting very long.
My sister, ever wiser and with an already established yoga practice, insisted that I would love it eventually. Eventually? Why bother if I didn’t even really like it now? As I pondered taking a pass on yoga, it dawned on me that perhaps my aversion to yoga class wasn’t just about the physical discomfort I felt in asanas and my annoyance at not being taught the poses I thought I wanted to be learning. I wondered if this rejection could be a tendency that extended beyond my yoga mat and into the reaches of the rest of my life. Did I turn my back on things I didn’t feel “good” at, or which challenged me more or differently than I wanted? Uncomfortable with this possibility, I made myself a deal: go to class 5 or 6 times a week for a month and if you don’t feel better, you never have to go back.
After a few weeks of classes I really did feel better physically and emotionally, and had begun to find the spiritual side of the practice a bit more approachable. In the years since that first class, I have come to love, study, and teach yoga all over the world. Asana, the physical practice, is only a small part of yoga, but it can be an invaluable teacher. Through my own practice and through teaching others I have come to see asana, in part, as a set of manufactured obstacles we seek in order to practice handling and overcoming adversity. Certainly, the poses help us become more flexible physically, but much more so, they help shape our approach to struggle, even if we are unaware it is happening. We use asana in a safe, relatively low stakes environment (really, it doesn’t actually matter if get your feet behind your head), as roadblocks to practice patiently moving through them.
When we first see or try a pose that challenges us, our initial reaction may be one of fear, rejection, aversion; but our asana practice is a training ground for learning to manage obstacles off the mat, when the stakes are much more real. Inevitably, we come up against occasional poses we loathe in a yoga practice and when we show up day after day, we are, in essence, engaging in the practice of self-empowerment. We empower ourselves to try, to succeed, to fail, to accept a certain amount of discomfort, and most importantly to fully participate in the process. With mindful practice, we come to realize that it’s not mastery of a pose we are seeking, but rather learning to approach challenge with grace and to bring ease to difficult/uncertain circumstances.
Our response to discomfort and challenge on and off the mat is an involved and evolving one, and yoga is a practice for a reason. We don’t go to yoga class for a week and suddenly become enlightened champions at life who gracefully handle all the storms that come our way. But over time, feelings of defeat, habits of avoidance, and overly aggressive attempts to conquer a problem can be thwarted by the habit of thoughtfully and intentionally approaching asanas and issues. We learn to not run away from fears or challenges but also not to blindly bulldoze our way through them. With mindful repetition, we begin to detach from the results of our efforts and immerse ourselves instead in the surrender and satisfaction within the process, the practice, and the incremental progress. That this may lead us to succeed at standing on our hands is merely a bonus.
by Avery W.