How many times have you said this to yourself? How many times have you justified this by noticing that Yoga can bring up so many negative emotions that you ask yourself how can it be a good thing? Or even, how come if yoga makes us feel like I am not able to accomplish the simplest of postures how can it benefit us?
Facing these obstacles with a different attitude can often illuminate exactly the goal of yoga and move beyond the limitations of the mind. Perhaps this is exactly where our practice needs to be, accepting what is. Perhaps today we could accept everything that occurs without judging or without labeling, good or bad. Perhaps standing on our mat in samastitihi, finding our balance in the present could be our practice for that day. Facing our most difficult challenges with awareness, honesty and compassion allows us to let go and accept what is occurring in the present moment. This simple process also allows us to become more present. By letting go of the fact we have tight hamstrings or weak shoulders, creates less resistance, it allows for softness in both body and mind. Some issues that arise won’t be fixed in one or two classes, or even one or two years. It takes time and patience for the body to learn new patterns, to unwind certain mental and physical habits. The most challenging of asana can teach patience and compassion, emotions may surface such as anger, they may surface as tears. Either way these e-motions, ‘energy in motion’, give us something to observe, so that we can begin to observe and listen to the mind, observe the stories the mind plays, I am too stiff, I am too weak, I am just not good enough. Accepting these obstacles is the first step. Eventually we can reach a point where we can begin to watch the mind from a safe distance, instead of the mind controlling us, we can notice and change the thoughts. In Yoga this practice is called Pratipaksha Bhavana, simply translated as changing negative thoughts to positive ones. If we can be really honest the challenges of asana may illuminate areas in our life that mirror what is being presented on the mat. Are we procrastinating about something in our life? Are we being too hard on ourselves instead of focusing on more positive aspects of our being?
What can start out as being a very physical practice begins to lead us down a path of growing awareness and begin to guide us in a new way. For example if we meet a posture with resistance and allow the mind to take charge telling us and even retorting out loud I can’t do this, the body tightens up and responds with the same resistance. Just as in life when something angers us or we face rejection, things can go from bad to worse, instead of letting them go we become stuck and the life force cannot flow.
If we can meet the challenges in asana with softness, using the power of the breath to open up the space and place all of our focus and awareness (dristi) on it, we can use the experience like a moving meditation and what appears, at first to be an obstacle can later become our teacher and even our friend. The journey is indeed the goal. A western mind wants to get no-where fast, we don’t want to wait, we want it now!
At the beginning of my yoga journey my obstacles were not around flexibility, I lacked strength mentally and physically, I gave up too easily, I seemed to be too sensitive. This was highlighted in standing asana, and arm balances. It was useful to have a teacher who had observed these patterns in my personality too, so was able to nurture this aspect of my being. An inability to stand up for myself was a repetitive drama I was playing out in my life, and giving up when I felt weak. Becoming stronger through years of postures that challenge strength and determination has impacted on my world off the mat. I have become stronger and more determined to overcome obstacles. This is why I practice yoga, however we need to implement all 8 limbs of Ashtanga Yoga for the journey to bear its’ fruit. After almost 17 years of practice I m still growing, I accept it with grace, and keep on building.
So when faced with what seems to be a physical challenge in the body, in asana, perhaps try asking yourself, how is this mirroring something in my life, do I need to be softer? Perhaps I need to be stronger. Keep the internal dialogue with yourself open and honest. That way we are practicing yoga every moment of the day.
by Vicki Shields Founder of Ashtanga Yoga Manchester