There might become a time in your yoga practice when you find yourself thinking, “now what?” It’s that moment when you realize the physical practice is just one small aspect. That’s what happened to me over a year ago, when I discovered there is a true depth to this ancient practice and that I had only started to scratch the surface.
I was introduced to yoga the way most people are today- through the physical practice, or asana as it's called in Sanskrit. When I first started practicing yoga at home, I was immediately drawn to the technical exploration of the postures. I would research each one and figure out which muscles I needed to stretch and strengthen. I loved the physical challenge. Right away I started documenting my physical progress by taking videos and photos during my home practice. I used Instagram as a way to track my journey, stay inspired and connect with the yoga community online. At the time, I remember thinking that the best yogis were the ones who could master all the yoga postures. And for awhile, that's what I aspired to be. I thought in order to be a great practitioner I had to be able to get into full splits or be able to effortlessly balance on my hands. I wanted a big, "advanced" practice, which was how I fell into the chase of yoga postures…
At some point in our lives, I think we can all say that we’ve been trapped in this mindset where we believe "I’ll be happier once I have (more money / that dream job / fancier clothes / a partner / my own house / a car, etc…)" In my case, and perhaps it's yours as well, it was the next yoga pose. I thought it would not only bring me happiness, but validation and success. “Once I’m able to do a handstand, more people will respect and admire me, I’ll feel fulfilled and I’ll be a better yoga teacher.” Spoiler alert: doesn’t happen.
Instead, what I discovered was that this way of thinking is flawed and can even be dangerous. It makes our current emotional state constantly dependent on an object or some series of events that hasn't happened yet (or might not happen at all). It can be detrimental to our self-esteem because we’re determining our own self-worth on what we do or do not have. Ultimately, we’re allowing external objects or situations to define us as human beings. It's essential for us to become aware of these thoughts because they shape our perception of ourselves and our place in the world. Our thoughts become our reality.
As my physical practice grew over the years, I began to recognize my thought patterns and observe them more closely. I slowly started to realize that my old belief system had failed; mastering yoga postures didn’t necessarily make me a better, or even more enlightened person.
It's not to say that the postures aren't an important part of the yoga experience - they definitely are! But yoga is about what the postures teach you - compassion, patience, cultivating self-awareness. And maybe along the way of achieving Dhanurasana you learn something deeper than how to backbend - how to be in an uncomfortable situation and still be able to breathe and find some ease in your body, mind and spirit.
What I learned, and now advise others to do: practice the poses, but stay mindful of what they're there to show you. Through the asana we practice being present, and aware, and doing things consciously, instead of mindlessly, numbly and distractedly. A yoga practice is a good direct and expedient way to really meet yourself. Use the asana as an effective tool to explore and connect with yourself. Being unable to do a certain pose doesn't mean you're not good at yoga or that you're not as good as someone else who can do it. The success in yoga isn't measured by how many advanced postures you can do. The poses themselves are never the end goal. It isn't about being flexible or "good" at asana (which, by the way, is only one of the eight limbs of yoga). It's truly about what you learn along the journey.
Now I'm reminded of this whenever I feel the desire to "master" a pose again. I come back to the reason why I practice yoga - because it makes me want to be a better person and live a more honest, peaceful life. Attaining a certain pose doesn't necessarily guarantee that.
Here are important questions to ask yourself the next time you feel the need to chase a yoga posture (or anything in life):
Why do you want to achieve this posture? Be honest. What are you hoping this posture will bring you? (Physically, mentally, emotionally)
I truly believe that our practices on the mat are a direct correlation to our lives off the mat. I came to realize that I was constantly chasing postures because I was seeking other things in my life- happiness, validation, success. After a while I was only left feeling imbalanced and burnt out which forced me to take a step back. I spent a lot of time self-reflecting and meditating. I still practiced yoga, but much less asana. I took a six month break from Instagram (best decision ever) and I even completed my 200-hour yoga teacher training, which really allowed me to do some in depth soul searching. Through this process I was able to come to terms with my past and my present…
Growing up, I struggled with perfectionism and feelings of never being good enough. I realized it’s because we're taught from an early age that what we do and what we own are the sole components for measuring whether we are "successful". So, we measure our success and that of others though this limited vantage point. Once I was able to recognize where my yearning for mastering yoga postures stemmed from, I was able to be more aware of my thoughts and actions. Changing false beliefs can be difficult, because often they develop from stories we’ve been telling and repeating to ourselves for years. It becomes a belief that is deeply rooted within us and is consistently ingrained by society’s standards. To break free from these limiting self-beliefs we must be willing to ask ourselves the challenging questions that requires deeper exploration and soul work.
The yoga practice is a lifelong voyage of self-discovery - one that occurs off and on the mat. A true yogi is someone who can take what they've learned in practice and apply it to the real world. It’s not so much about whether or not you can put your leg behind your head, balance on your hands or perform a backbend. It's about choosing to be a better person moment to moment.
Ultimately, yoga as a tool or technique is a physical practice with a spiritual intention. Everything we do physically has a deeper, spiritual lesson. We can use the physical practice to learn about ourselves and to make peace with ourselves; to open up a channel into the divine, into grace; and in that space of grace there is healing and freedom.