“I’ve always wanted to do yoga but I’m not [insert blank] enough.” Is this you? Are you finding reasons why you can’t comfortably go to a yoga practice? Or worse, have you been to a practice and found it demoralizing and discouraging because you didn’t fit in with either your idea of a yoga student, or worst of all, the teacher’s idea?
Please don’t give up. You ARE enough.
While I am thrilled that yoga has become mainstream, its purpose and message have been diluted to mesh with the corporate image of a thin young white woman in expensive leggings putting her legs behind her head. That woman you see in the picture? That is asana, NOT yoga. Yoga CANNOT be photographed. Who knows what’s happening in the yoga model’s subtle body? She may be so hypermobile that a Level 3 pose is no less difficult than crossing her legs or tying her shoes. Remember that your experience of any pose is unique, both to you and to the time you are in it. It may not look like what is on the cover of Yoga Journal but it is no less powerful, legitimate, or advanced—but only as long as you can feel it in you.
I understand why you’re conflicted. It’s hard not to confuse yoga with asana. Asana is the only tangible component of yoga and lends itself easily to imagery. Try to remember that the original purpose of asana was simply to prepare the body to sit in meditation. Sitting can be hard. Sit on the floor for ten minutes. Have your legs fallen asleep? Does your back hurt? I have a hard time with this even after a regular yoga practice for more than a decade.
Even sitting in a chair can be challenging. More likely than not, you think you’re not doing it right because you’re not sitting on the floor like the REAL yogis. Pesky thoughts never stop going through your head. But guess what? This is where things start to get interesting. Sitting still with these thoughts and observing their coming and going without reacting to them is truly an advanced yoga practice. You can’t Instagram this practice, and unlike Eka Pada Bakasana, there’s no mental box to check off once you’ve nailed it. Yoga is a state of consciousness that flickers in and out but is always there, resting underneath the chaos of our monkey minds. The shape of the body has no bearing on the shape of the practice, which is inchoate, formless, and never-ending.
So if this is true, then why do asana at all? My answer is this: asana is a tool that helps to bring us closer to our breath and our experience in the present moment. As we coordinate our movements with our inhalations and exhalations, as we track sensation through our bodies by using different asanas, as we hold poses or move through transitions, we are beginning to move from a habitual, unconscious state of being into one of awareness, consciousness, and deep connection to that which we cannot see. Asana warms us up and puts us in a place where we can access our deeper layers more easily. It is a tool, not a means to an end. And this brings us back to you trying to muster up the courage to roll out your mat.
To which I say, “Welcome!” But please remember that I can’t spoon-feed you your practice unless I’m working with you one-on-one. If I’m teaching a group class, there are other souls who are looking to me for guidance as well. You are responsible for feeling what you feel and for exercising your discernment in an honest way to keep you in a safe place. And you are responsible for choosing whether to implement the modifications I’ve given you for certain poses. If I suggest you skip a Chatturanga and take Down Dog instead, why not see how it feels—emotionally as well as physically– instead of trying to keep up with the rest of the class? Be okay with where you are today, even if it’s not where everyone else is or where you want to be. The biggest mistake beginners make is giving in to their egos. They look around, see what everyone else is doing, and then try to manipulate their bodies into the same shape. This is why I will ask you to close your eyes every once in a while. It’s easier to see inside without being distracted by the external. Then you can feel the asana and experience and come a little closer to that flickering consciousness of yours that’s just waiting for you underneath it all.
You may need to be more persistent than you realize to find your practice. As I mentioned earlier, yoga’s popularity means that there are a lot of teachers. Many of them are wonderful, knowledgeable, and compassionate. But they may not be right for you. They may teach you asana without knowing how to modify for your limitations. They may think of yoga as a workout (and their students will, too). They may never have taught anyone who has arthritis, low blood pressure, or a herniated disc. If this is the only teacher you can find (and if so, where do you live, and can I open a studio there?), talk to her after class and explain your limitations. Educate her about your restrictions and enlist her as a partner in your journey. Yoga is a co-creation between you and your teacher, and you will be doing her a favor by giving her the opportunity to welcome you into her class.
If she’s not responsive, you’ll have to walk away. You need a teacher who will work with you, and if yours doesn’t know how, or worse, is not willing, then you have to get creative. I hate to think of a yoga teacher who would tell someone to leave, but I know this happens. Please don’t get discouraged. We’re not all like this! If there is truly no one to help you locally, try finding someone online. The upside of yoga’s popularity is that there are amazing yoga teachers carving out niches for themselves, and there are people just like you who are practicing with them. Some teachers can help you through Skype, and there are workshops and retreats you can go to if you’re willing and able to travel. You’ll need to persevere to find your path, but the journey itself is part of your yoga, and you will be a stronger and more dedicated student for it.
Finally, remember your obligation to your practice. I am not a new-agey person, but I firmly believe that the energy within each yoga class is dictated not simply by the teacher but by the students as well. I’ve experienced it far too often to deny its existence. When the students are tapped into the practice, when they are focused on their experiences and not looking around, when they are respecting their boundaries and not muscling through every vinyasa just because I’ve offered it as an option, when they challenge themselves to stay for savasana even if their minds are racing and they need to stop at the supermarket on the way home, the practice becomes something transcendent. It is more than the sum of its parts. So if you’re disconnected or allowing your emotions to hijack your experience, your teacher won’t be able to help you no matter how talented he or she is. Accept responsibility for not just your actions but your reactions as well. You’ll be a better yoga student and a better human being. And I bet you’ll be happier, too, whether or not you come back to your mat.