The Biggest Mistake made in Yoga and Possibly in Life

Comments Off on The Biggest Mistake made in Yoga and Possibly in Life Written on January 28th, 2014 by
Categories: General, Yoga mistakes
What we think yoga should like

What we think yoga should like

In yoga sessions, people ask me all the time, “How do I look?!” My general response these days is “Great, but how do you feel?”  I’ve come to realize that in yoga, even with all the emphasis on self-awareness and nurturing spirit, blah blah, we still get caught up in our own unexamined desires to please, to get the carrot, to achieve, to finish. We take time out of our busy days to ostensibly take care of ourselves, to listen to ourselves. We then actually spend it very subtly (or not so subtly) punishing ourselves and imposing someone else’s ideals on ourselves.  We ask ourselves: Why can’t I touch my toes yet? Why is my balance so bad on this awkward left leg? My abdominals are so weak! I’ll never get this pose. etc.  Underlying all these questions and statements is the real thought, “What is wrong with me?”  We try to fix our problems by over stretching and straining. Does this mean all discomfort is bad? Of course not. But the attitude by which we struggle makes all the difference.

Most of the time, we want someone else to tell us we are doing it “right”. We want approval, assurance from the outside. We want our poses to look a certain way.  Even if we are not obviously comparing ourselves directly to another person, we still heed the internal judge about where we are in relationship to where we are supposed to be. This constant judging and measuring impedes learning.  We impose instead of approach with curiosity. We try one thing instead of many. Yes, we want to sweat, to really engage every muscle, to shake, to feel our own tightness but all in the pursuit of feeling great. You know when you ‘ve done it, because you come out of a pose and your body tingles. And you feel joyful and freer.

Of course, for a while most of us don’t know what we feel or even what is even possible to feel. There is nothing wrong with seeking guidance from another more experienced person on the outside, a teacher. Going down this path of physical self-discovery alone can be confusing. However, at some point we have to start learning what freedom actually feels like in our bodies and to begin to trust and listen to what they are telling us.  At some point you have to start tuning out a bit and start tuning in.

I know, because I have personal experience with being goal obsessed in yoga.  I’ve always wanted a deep backbend. Why? If I look closely, my assumptions are that it would make me appear truly adept and graceful, would prove I’m a good yoga teacher (that I really know “how to let go”) and increase my economic value as an aerialist. And yet I know from my own experience that the deepest backbenders don’t necessarily make good teachers and bendy aerialists are more often than not boring to watch. And yet I have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get my ass and head closer together behind me (we all have weird hobbies). Part of me wants to just continue to bang away at bending my back in a linear fashion, because it thinks I don’t really “get” something, and one day I will get it if I just keep pushing in the same way. I’ve made getting a good back bend mean something about me as a person.

The only trouble is that for twenty years that hasn’t worked out so well. It hasn’t helped that my personal attitude has often been supported by the larger yoga community unconsciously. Physical flexibility seems to be inextricably tied to personal emotional evolution. In some senses, it is true as physical and emotional epiphanies often go hand in hand.  However, if you are looking just at  increasing range of motion, this idea makes little sense. The younger you are, generally the more flexible you are, but you are not emotionally evolved at all. And the super flexible are not necessarily great sages. In addition, when you really get honest with yourself and keep integrity and freedom in your body, your poses actually look actually less impressive from the outside, even if they are freer on the inside.

I have pushed and fought and tried for a long time.  Instead of focusing on how I felt doing a backbend, both my teachers and myself focused on getting the backbend to look good. But I didn’t leave class feeling good, I left sometimes feeling accomplished if in pain, but often just like a failure. I focused so hard on “letting go” that I collapsed into my back then would compensate by gripping my abdominals. No wonder I felt so bound up. My whole core went into protection mode against my will that was trying to force a change my body had no interest in.

What yoga should feel like.

What yoga should feel like.

After 20 years, I have started to really focus on my breath, my muscle engagement, and my energy flow. And of course what happened?! I don’t dread backbends, I actually love them, and they make me happy because I feel more and more free every time I do one. I know the fairy tale ending here would be to tell you I got a deeper backbend. Nope, not in real life, and I actually don’t care (most of the time).  I still find myself here and there checking to see how far my foot is from my head and then of course, the moment that thought passes through my head, my pose goes cold and static and I feel dry and crunchy again. I have to go back to reminding myself to stop with the measurements.

Now, with my clients too, I measure progress in how much they can sense what their own bodies are actually doing. Progress to me has zero relationship to how long one can hold a headstand or how easily you can touch your toes.  I watch breath, muscle engagement, and energy flow. I make different suggestions on how to make something feel freer or more stable and check in with what seems to work best. I try to get super honest feedback if what we are doing is actually relieving pain or tension or not. What is most important to me now is that both my students and I keep one eye always on the bigger picture. The “how” is so much more important than the “what”.


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