I listen to the podcast and read the blog on the website On Being with Krista Tippett. She explores the questions of what it means to be human and how we want to live. Tippett’s guests are from all walks of life and represent all belief and non-belief systems.
Yoga comes up from time to time. In March, one guest contributor wrote something that has stuck with me.
Yoga practioner Melani McAlister wrote, “See, I don’t want to be a part of a yoga world of happy talk about unending potential and perfect happiness. I don’t have much time for the kind of self-impressed platitudes that give yoga a bad name...I do yoga to quiet my mind, not to fill it with nonsense.”
Exactly. As a yoga student, I just want to practice. I don’t want to be entertained. I don’t want to be lectured to. I don’t want to hear the teacher’s playlist. I don’t want the teacher shouting over loud music. I want a quiet place. I want a bit of instruction and a little support, some reminders of what to do, and that’s about it. I just want to practice.
I’ve been in classes where teachers chatter away the entire time, going on about opening my heart and finding my true self and setting my intention and connecting with the universe and even talking about being a goddess. And I know it sounds bad, but I sometimes don’t want to tell people I teach yoga because they probably have the wrong idea about what I do, all because of the stuff that, as McAlister says, “gives yoga a bad name.”
I prefer the quiet, no-nonsense type of practice. The silence combined with the mental and physical challenges are what I need to find inner strength and peace. ~Lisa
I am taking an art class called Drawing Abstract Portraits. I haven’t drawn in almost 30 years.
The first class was scary. Who would be there? How good would they be? Would I be good enough? I’d have to draw in front of people! Everyone could watch me work and see my mistakes. I won’t know what I am doing and everyone will know.
Turns out it wasn’t like that. The class was small. Everyone had different strengths, abilities, and experiences. No one was there to judge. We were all there to learn. We had different styles, and it was fun to experiment and learn new techniques. The teacher’s lessons were very clear, and she was supportive no matter how much experience you had. It was okay to make mistakes
That’s similar to yoga class. I remember my very first class. It was terrifying, but after a while, after a few classes, I finally Iet go of the idea that I wasn’t good enough, and I was just fine.
For new students, it can be scary having to do postures you have never seen or done before, risking a fall or making mistakes, while others might be flying through their practice.
In yoga class, there are students of a wide variety of ages, sizes, experiences, backgrounds, strengths, etc. No one is there to judge. We are all there to learn.
It takes courage to try something new, to challenge yourself, to put yourself out there. But if we want to feel alive, if we want to keep growing and learning, it’s a risk we must take. The only way to grow is to come out of your comfort zone.
I’m reading the book Yoga for Warriors: Basic Training in Strength, Resilience, and Peace of Mind by Beryl Bender Birch. The book’s target audience is military service members or anyone deployed to a war zone.
Birch writes, “The main difference I see between the discipline of being in the armed forces and the discipline of yoga is that the final objective in the military is to prepare the warrior for battle with an external force or enemy. In yoga training, the preparation is also geared toward battle, but the enemies are within!”
The book contains testimonials by several veterans who are successfully using yoga practice along with conscious breathing, yoga nidra (a deep relaxation practice also called yogic sleep), and meditation in addition to other therapies for conditions such as post traumatic stress and chronic pain.
Some of these men and women have lost one or more limbs. What I found inspirational is that they made the yoga postures work for them as opposed to using physical impediments as an excuse not to do yoga. One man with a severely disfigured arm figured out a modification for crane. A woman who lost both legs does the upper body part of the postures.
Birch adds, “Together we figure out how we can do this posture rather than why we can’t do it.”
How many times have we made excuses about why we can’t do something when, if we really want to do it, we can figure out how to make it work?
One veteran’s advice to anyone who might feel discouraged from attempting the physical postures due to physical limitation or disability advised, “Just start where you are and do what you can.”
Well, if we truly want to practice yoga and battle the enemies within ourselves, we must start where we are and do what we can.
The light turned red just as I was about to make a right turn at a busy intersection. I stopped for the light. The guy behind me blasted his horn. Sure, I could have put on the gas and quickly turned before the cars crossed the intersection, but I came to a complete stop as is the law.
I felt anger when I heard his horn. I looked at him in the rearview mirror. The passive-aggressive part of me thought, “Oh, you just wait. I’m going to go nice and slow.” So I did. I went the speed limit after I turned. Then I pulled up parallel to the car in the next lane ahead of me and kept its pace so that angry horn guy couldn’t pass. Sure, I was doing the speed limit and obeying the law, but my thoughts were those of making the driver behind me pay.
If we are truly practicing yoga, that includes adhering to the ethical behaviors described in yama and niyama, the first two limbs in yoga.
If I am trying to practice ahimsa, the first yama in yoga, then that means non-harming. Non-harming in actions, words, and thoughts. What I was doing was getting revenge. I felt anger and was distracted by trying to keep the irritated driver behind me. That “I’ll show him” mentality was probably making him angrier and was causing me to continue to be angry when I could have been enjoying my drive.
In hindsight, I should have simply let the red-light incident go and continued with my daily business.
Notice how ingrained we can become with habits and actions. “You hurt me, I’ll hurt you.” That kind of thinking never helps any situation.
Being able to respond in a non-harmful way is practicing yoga.
Do you want to practice yoga or just the yoga postures?
The physical postures were my gateway to yoga. Something about the breathing and moving and focus and concentration worked some kind of magic. I was never athletic nor very coordinated, so the lack of mirrors and the noncompetitive nature of the practice were a perfect combination. I needed a way to settle my mind, to calm down, to release built-up tension. Attending yoga class was the answer.
Many people come to yoga because they want some sort of “fix.” Maybe they have weak or tight bodies, and the stretching and strengthening feel good. Maybe they are stressed out and need a practice where they can have more of an inward focus and practice some deep breathing to soothe the nervous system. All good reasons to begin a yoga practice.
Practicing only the postures will help us improve our focus and concentration, and make us stronger and more flexible. But if we limit our practice to just practicing yoga postures, we cheat ourselves out of the full benefits of the practice.
I encourage you to explore the ethical, psychological, and philosophical aspects of yoga. There’s so much more to the practice than just practicing postures.
If you are interested in learning more about the practice of yoga. The Inner Tradition of Yoga: A Guide to Yoga Philosophy for the Contemporary Practitioner by Michael Stone is a wonderful book to take you deeper into your understanding of this practice.
It feels good when we to continue to develop skill and to challenge ourselves.
Working on challenging postures in our practice helps us move past fears, teaches us that we are stronger than we think, and shows us that concentration and focus are the real work of yoga.
Yoga is about connecting the mind, breath, and body. It’s about turning the focus inward and slowing down the incessant spinning of the mind. It’s about learning to stay calm and collected when faced with challenges. It’s about learning to respond well when things don’t go the way you want them to. And we can expect to fail, to fall, to struggle, to find our limits.
Yes, the asana practice is what makes our bodies strong and flexible, but the real work is on the inside. It’s letting go of what our ego tells us makes us “good” at yoga. It’s not about the outside. It’s about the inside. The asana practice helps us discover our limits so that we can work to move beyond them. And it reveals what we need to work on as far as our mental habits go. Are we pushers, or do we hold back and play it safe? Are we judging, comparing, and complaining, or are we accepting where we are at that moment? Are we more concerned with how we look to others? Attached to being able to execute a certain posture? What are we so attached to that it holds us back from finding the true freedom we seek?
We use the challenging postures to help us move deeper into our practice by allowing us to develop our inner strength.
If we want things to change, we have to change things.
Whether it’s something in our yoga practice or something in our lives, wishing, hoping, and complaining isn’t going to make the change we are longing for. We need to do something different.
Maybe the change you need to make is to practice patience. In our yoga practice, building strength, gaining flexibility, learning to regulate breathing, and, most importantly, quieting the mind, take time. These things don’t happen overnight. Be diligent and patient.
Practice perseverance. Keep at it. Again, lasting change, real change, takes time. If you’ve only been practicing yoga for a year, you are still a beginner. In fact, aren’t we all beginners at some level? Yoga is a lifelong practice. It cannot be rushed.
Be curious. Ask questions. Study and learn. Sometimes a little technique can go a long way.
Work hard. Maybe you need to practice more often. I feel that three days a week seems to be the minimum one should practice yoga. If you can’t make it to class, practice on your own. If you are only practicing twice a week, challenge yourself to three or four or even five times a week. Six would be ideal!
And the things we can’t change? We can change the way we think about them. Things that are beyond our control require us to change our attitudes. We learn to let go and release such things.
These guidelines apply not only to our yoga practice, but to any aspect of our lives we wish to change.
It’s been said that true wealth is control over your time and how you spend it.
Make the time to do the things you love instead of pushing them aside. That includes your yoga practice.
Those of us who are committed to our yoga practice and have continued to practice over many years - through all of the inevitable ups and downs - know that commitment means valuing our practice time as necessary, not optional. We schedule things around our practice instead of the other way around.
Sure, sometimes unavoidable circumstances get in the way of our regular routine, but we don’t let that turn into a downward spiral. We have committed ourselves to a regular practice and we maintain that as much as possible.
If we don’t take control over our time, someone else will. There will always be other things to do and reasons why we don’t have time to do the things we love. Our yoga practice is our lifelong commitment to our physical, mental, and emotional health. We need to value our practice and treat it as priceless.
When we practice, it’s quiet. There’s no chatter, no joking around, no stories, we are not here for entertainment.
Yes, we are serious about focusing on what we are doing.
Yes, we are serious about paying attention to breath and applying the details of the posture.
Yes, we are serious about keeping our attention on our own mats.
Yes, we are serious about working hard and being consistent.
But be careful not to confuse a serious commitment to focus and attention with negative, controlling, critical, or dogmatic thinking.
Serious attention to focus does not mean being harsh. We can be serious about our practice and be kind, caring, and forgiving. We can be serious about our practice and not take ourselves too seriously.
If we stumble, wobble, or fall out of a posture, we maintain our focus and keep breathing. We do not engage in self-criticism by telling ourselves we are not good enough. Falling is part of the practice. We all wobble and fall from time to time, but we learn to keep breathing as we do.
Yoga isn’t something we just do for fun once in a while. A serious commitment to your practice demonstrates your commitment to physical and mental self-improvement for the long haul.
And that’s something to take seriously.
Whether you are new to yoga or experienced, keep in mind that yoga should never be a competition.
Practice for yourself and to become the best you can be. Push yourself to change and grow, to come out of your comfort zone, even to fall every now and then without worrying about what others think. We are here to learn and grow, not judge.
We want to develop what is known as the “growth mindset.” According to Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work - brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”
So start where you are. Do not worry if you are not flexible or strong. With hard work and dedication you can change that. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. That’s how we learn. No one expects you to know everything or to be able to do everything. We are changing our mindsets, not just our bodies.
You can learn more about the idea of growth mindset (versus a fixed mindset) here: