In yoga, our practice takes on the metaphor for how we approach things in our life. Those of us with the type A personalities take every pose with the most seriousness, and appreciate the structure and conformity that yoga brings. Those of us who are too busy with a million obligations, and always taking care of others, find every excuse to not even show up on the mat, because we feel guilty taking the time out for ourselves. Those of us who are lazy, and enjoy a good couch surfing and some pizza, might not ever make it to the mat.
Yoga has several forms, stems from various systems of philosophy, has many lineages, differing structures to their practice, and as a result several walks of life are drawn to yoga’s many variations. The devotee’s of Ashtanga yoga won’t get the same structure and routine out of going to a Hatha class. Those who are drawn to Vinyasa classes, might not see the benefits of learning the theories behind Tantra. But we find the practice that feels right for us, the teacher that resonates with us the most, and we begin the journey, modifying when necessary, while still honoring the practice of yoga.
About 4-5 years ago my yoga practice was extremely vigorous and I was practicing daily. Any opportunity I had to go find a yoga class, I squeezed into my already packed schedule. At that time I was also working in the non-profit world, and expending a ton of energy running programs, writing grants, working on behalf of issues around social justice and in communities that were extremely vulnerable with many needs. I was in my young 20’s, I had tons of energy to burn, and the more I did, the better I felt. Whether I was spending extra hours at work, organizing an event for some committee I was on, or fitting in a yoga workshop on my weekends, the less free time I had on my schedule, the better I thought my accomplishments were. Thus my ego was filled, and I felt whole. My asana practice was full of surya namaskar a’s & b’s, and I couldn’t wait to open up into a million backbends, and twist all of the breath out of my lungs in order to get the ‘deepest’ variation of the pose. I never practiced in my home, and I figured that didn’t matter. I tried anything and everything, occasionally suffering the next day from doing a pose I probably wasn’t ready for, or walking out of class with such yoga brain, I couldn’t find where I had parked my car.
A lot has changed in the last 5 years. My professional path has taken a number of turns, and my obligations and commitments seem to outpace the hours in the day. My friendships, relationships and how I choose to spend my time is the opposite of what it used to be. I have found a need for focus and grounding that seems all the more crucial at this stage in my life. As opposed to looking how to fit another yoga class in, I am trying to create space for time to be at home, rest, and practice and meditate in the sun-drenched corner of my house. The need for the vigorous and challenging classes does not seem as important anymore. The more I have on my schedule, the more I find myself exhausted. I have to organize blocks of time where I have nothing planned. I commit to that ‘nothing’ and have become protective of that sacred time that is reserved for just me and silence.
As a social worker and a yoga teacher, people often feel the need to tell on themselves upon seeing me. The guilt sets in almost immediately and they instantly apologize for not getting to class in the last few weeks. The inner judgment takes over, as students divulge why they can’t do a certain pose, feel like one side is more or less flexible then the other, or have trouble letting go of tension in their shoulders. I find myself constantly repeating “It’s okay” or “Observe it, then work with it”. Rarely do we honor our practice in its present state, if it isn’t what we expect from ourselves. It is perhaps the kindest thing you can do for yourself, to allow your practice to simply be what it is. Rather than excusing it for what it isn’t or comparing it to others, allow it to happen authentically and be the witness to your own practice.
It is important to make the time to just observe what happens on the mat. Allow your practice to nourish you in the same way you take pleasure in a good meal, a nice long nap, a night out dancing to blow off steam, or a much needed mental-health day off from work. It’s okay to back away from a pose, it’s okay to take a deeper backbend, it’s okay to stay in child’s pose for a few more breaths, and it’s okay to invoke some anger and heat when in a warrior pose. I encourage students always to take the variation of the given pose that is most appropriate for them, because sometimes we need the freedom to explore a pose in our own bodies. For some that may mean turning up the heat in a practice, while for others, it may mean choosing the variation that is most restorative and relaxing.
While the roots and foundations of yoga may not change, there is no contesting that yoga has changed dramatically over the last few thousand years. It has travelled over oceans and lands, and made it’s way from the ground of India to the wood floor studios of every major city’s metropolis. Not every yoga practice is right for every person, and context is everything. What B.K.S. Iyengar needed in the 1940’s, may not be what a urban dwelling, working mother of 2 children needs. Figure out what practice works for you right now, and know that it will change, and it will continue to evolve, as you do.
What was right for my personal yoga practice years ago, isn’t what I need right now. Some poses I was able to do with ease yesterday are the ones that may give me a struggle tomorrow. And what I found challenging years ago, is what I find pacifying currently. I am evolving, and so is my practice. Creating the space for silence and observation while honoring the time for curiosity can be a challenge for anyone. And yet, allowing for spontaneous decisions so that you are truly honoring what your body and mind wants in the present moment, can leave you more fulfilled, and able to take on all the other aspects of your life. It is okay to explore your own practice and indulge in poses in whatever way moves you. It is your practice and it should reflect and move you to be the most authentic self you can be.