During recovery from surgery, a student of mine asked her doctor when she would be able to return to her asana practice, adding, “I love yoga!” Her doctor simply replied, “Does yoga love you?”
It’s a question worth asking.
How many times have you come to your mat as a way to “fix” something that’s “wrong”?
How many times have you come to your mat to practice as a celebration of love for whatever is happening in your body, your mind, your emotional self?
And how many times have you come to your mat to achieve, to “own”, a particular pose?
For a long time, my asana practice was comprised of wholly corrective measures.
Savasana to make up for my chronic lack of sleep…Handstands (and caffeine!) to get me amped up for big presentations in my former office worker life… A punishing vinyasa practice to make me feel better about eating that pint of ice cream.
I also had my fair share of yoga practicing simply to achieve a particular pose.
I wasn’t doing these poses to understand body mechanics or to celebrate the amazing possibilities of human movement.
Nope. This was just me doing crazy stuff for the sake of crazy stuff. This was me, consuming and commodifying yoga postures.
Don’t get me wrong. Asana is incredibly good and helping you right the ship, so to speak, to help you strengthen and mobilize the body when you are off kilter. And it’s also really fun to be able to do arm balances and big backbends! Sometimes those poses are the kinds of things you need to motivate you to get to your practice.
But yoga asana is also offering you more than all of that.
As you know have by now noticed and perhaps experience firsthand, the postures in asana practice are never really done. There’s always something more to explore, another step to take, a different variation to try.
When I figured this out, I felt a little disheartened at first. I had this moment where I thought, “Wait, you mean I’ll never be done with this!?” But as time went on, I realized this is one of the most fantastic things about asana and the whole reason we call it a practice.
Yoga in all of its forms, not just asana, is a continual process of discovery.
There is always something more to consider, something else to try, some other way to contemplate what you discover. Simultaneously each asana you practice, in whatever form you do it, is always complete.
It is as if yoga is saying to you, yes, there are another 27 version of this pose but what about the one you are doing right? THIS pose. THIS version.THIS moment. Why are you doing this? Are you fully present to what is happening here? Can find steadiness and ease in body and mind, just as it is? If so, this pose is just as much yoga as all of the others. This pose is not lacking.
And by extension, YOU are not lacking. You are whole. You are complete.
Purna is a Sanskrit word that means ‘complete’ or ‘whole’ or even sometimes it is translated as ‘perfection’.
Purna in asana practice is a call to be really present at each stage and each moment as you are experience it. Because this stage, this moment, is totally and completely whole. Only in experiencing it fully can you see clearly for what the pose or the experience might have to teach you.
So does yoga asana love you? The answer is yes. Yoga always loves you when you practice from a space of curiosity and celebration of the wholeness that is inherently you.
Many years ago, I went to a yoga class when I was on a vacation in South Carolina and the teacher kept saying things like, “this pose isn’t for you; it’s for someone else” and “give away this pose”. Every time she would say things like that, I would bristle.
What do you mean, this isn’t for me?
This time that I’ve worked so hard to carve out this time for yoga practice? This warrior 2 we’ve been holding here for an eternity? This backbend I’ve been attempted so diligently? These millions of rounds of kapala bhati? This busy mind of mine that I’ve been working to understand for years in my meditations? No, no, no. This is ONLY for me!
Then back in October, I went on a retreat with my best friend. The whole weekend was only for me; it was a girls-only weekend getaway reminiscent of the road tripping my friend and I used to do together back in our college days.
Several times throughout the weekend, Natalie Miller, the retreat leader, would say something like, “be generous to yourself.”
To be honest, going on that retreat felt like a big splurge, one that I felt a tad bit guilty about, but with Natalie’s reminders I started to remember that by practicing yoga, by setting aside a whole weekend to practice and just be, I was giving a very generous gift to myself. And it was a gift I deserved!
All weekend long, I noticed that I was more patient with myself when I didn’t know what to do. I was more forgiving when I messed something up. And above all, I was more curious than judgmental about my reactions to things.
But the unexpected thing was that all of the amazing benefits of my generous practice time ended up working to the benefit of others.
I didn’t feel flustered when the drive home took an hour longer than usual and I ended up 10 minutes late for a workshop I was teaching. My husband noted how relaxed I still looked and acted, even the day after I returned home. I felt undisturbed by the giant pile of laundry that had accumulated in my absence, something that otherwise would have caused me great angst.
You get the idea, right?
So I guess you could say that it just took me a really long time to learn the lesson that teacher was trying to impart in that class so long ago when she kept telling me that my yoga practice was for someone else.
Yoga practicing is an act of generosity and the benefits extended well beyond the practitioner.
Now as we are sitting at the end of the season of giving, I offer you a challenge. Come to your yoga practice this month, not because of a New Year’s Resolution and not because you are committing to change something about yourself.
Come to your practice as an act of generosity to yourself. Because you deserve it!
Practice and practice often. And notice how your practice benefits you and also everyone around you. It’s the best way to keep the season of giving happening all year long.
The thing I love the most about home makeover shows is where they find something really valuable and unexpected under some badly designed wall or worn out carpet or boarded up fireplace. That stuff that’s over the top of the hidden treasure, like that old ugly carpet, is just like the yogic concept of prakriti.
Prakriti is the stuff of the material world. You can think about it as layers of forces or energy. The Sanskrit word for these forces/energies is guna. The word guna literally means strand or string or thread. So you can think about the gunas as the threads that make up a cloth. That cloth is prakriti.
In The Bhagavad Gita, the gunas are described as the threads of the cloth that make a mask or a veil. And that veil, like the bad 70’s shag carpet in the Fixer Upper house, is disguising something amazing.
One way to apply this in a more practical way is to start to consider what is underneath, out of sight for you. What is behind your desire to practice yoga? What is happening in your yoga poses that is more than just the outward appearance of the shape of the pose? What motivates you on (and off!) your mat? What is the intention that informs and underpins your yoga practice?
The fall is the perfect time to start to ask these questions and settle into the ways that yoga practice can serve you best through the colder and darker months ahead.
Fall is the perfect time to remember the law of impermanence. Quite simply, nothing lasts. Ah, of course! But that’s not something that is easy to grasp or practice, right? On one hand, it’s a relief to know that whatever miserable thing that is happening won’t last. (Okay, maybe it lasts longer that I might like, but it won’t last forever!) But then on the other hand, it’s quite a downer to realize those moments of bliss and complete delight are not going to last either.
I can tell you with complete certainty that all of the suffering in my life has been when I’ve mistaken the impermanent for the permanent. When I’ve expected the blissful moments to remain the same and was then deeply distraught when they didn’t last.
Yoga is offering us these tools to be present to whatever is happening at any given moment. Yoga is not requiring or even asking us to transcend the mundane parts of our lives. It’s not even asking us to get beyond the “down” moments!
My teachers recently sent me an email that said, “You are not your worst day. You are not your best day. You are the awareness that allows you to recognize those extremes and everything else in between.”
Yoga simply says to us, here are some tools to try out. Use them to be more fully aware of yourself and all of the ways you can and will change. Because, as the old adage goes: this too shall pass.