One of the hardest things to teach new (and old!) students of yoga really does not have much to do with the particulars of the poses, or even the breath. It has very little to do with tight muscles or insufficient strength, although they are part of it. One of the hardest things for people to ‘get’ about yoga is how to react when confronted with those tight muscles or that lack of strength.
* ‘Listen to your body’
* ‘Honor your body’
* ‘Rest in child’s pose when you need to’
* ‘If this pose is hard for you, stay with it, work on it and skip the next one’
* ‘Be kind to yourself’
These are things we’ve all heard our teachers say, but how many of us have taken that advice seriously, in particular when we were starting out? Especially when we come from other forms of exercise, we think we have to do exactly what our teacher is doing, come hell or high water. We strain, we groan, we wince, we hurt. We keep going until we are completely out of breath, until we are shaking so hard our poses barely resemble a pose at all and we know we are going to feel awful in the morning. Some of us may even be proud of how sore we are going to be, because it proves how hard we worked, right? Wrong.
At least in yoga. when this scenario happens (and I have seen it happen over and over again), we’ve damaged our muscles, or even injured them, and when we’ve recovered enough after several days or weeks to go back to class, we have actually lost flexibility and haven’t won any muscle memory. We start again from square one. This ‘no pain, no gain’ approach to yoga, this inability to let go of competitiveness seriously slows our progress in yoga. So what should you do?
First of all examine your attitude towards your yoga practice. How much do you care about how you compare to other students, your teacher, or, heaven forbid, the Yoga Journal models? Does it frustrate you if you can’t do something someone else in the room can? Why? If the teacher shows 3 different modifications of a pose of increasing difficulty, do you feel you have to rush through to the most difficult one immediately, regardless of how the first two feel (if you have stopped to notice how they feel at all)? Answering these questions for yourself can give you an inkling of how competitive you are.
To learn to let go of this you must realize that everyone else is not you, their body is not the same, and they are in a different place on their yoga journey. Therefore it makes no sense to do a pose like other people do it. You wouldn’t try to do a pose like a chair bound 83 year old with rheumatoid arthritis, so why would your current neighbor in class or your teacher be the gold standard? Realize that this is about you: Your body, your strength, your limitations, your challenges, and your accomplishments, wonderful as they all are. Here, self-centeredness is a good thing!
So now that you can stop looking at and worrying about other people, you will have freed up your mind to do what you’ve been encouraged to do all along: listen to your body. You can only hear what it is saying if you keep your mind on what you are doing. Move into poses cautiously, being aware of what is happing to you and your breath the entire time. Spending time and energy exploring your limits in each pose will make what once was your limit feel like a normal part of your range of motion, shifting your limits in the desired direction, something that using force will never do for you. Of course you may slip into competitive thinking once in while, it happens to all of us: just try to nip it in the bud as soon as you become aware of it.
It never fails that the people who can’t let go of the notion that they should measure up to some perceived ideal before they will allow themselves to find joy in their practice, are the ones that will eventually quit practicing, claiming it ‘didn’t do anything’ for them. In reality, they were too busy fighting themselves to ever get around to really doing yoga.