About ten years ago when I started taking yoga classes, I remember thinking it was odd when teachers or students referred to Yoga as “a practice.” They talked about ‘their yoga practice’ in the same way someone might refer to their golf game. I was fairly green on the yoga scene and I had a hard time wrapping my head around what that really meant.
Fast forward to 2015. After ten years of being a yoga student and four years of leading yoga classes, I often refer to my yoga practice. My practice is really not about how far I can forward fold or how long I can balance on one leg. My yoga practice includes my ability to use my breath to calm my body in challenging or stressful situations. This yoga practice also guides my values and the choices I make throughout the day. There are actually eight limbs of yoga – and the physical practice (asana) and breath work (pranayam) are just two elements of the eight that make up yoga.
Many yoga classes include poses to stretch the muscles and reduce tension, as well as poses to build strength for a strong body. I offer Yoga for Athletes classes on a weekly basis and in the past I have taught Yoga for Golfers, Triathletes and Runners. Athletes of all levels attend and they bring the same zest and passion for their sport to the yoga mat. This is not a bad thing, until they get discouraged that their pose is not “perfect” and give up trying! (audible sigh from instructor here). Sometimes they may become competitive with others, which is frowned upon in the yoga setting. The goal is not to see if you can bend or twist further than your buddy. Sorry guys – save that energy for the race. My goal for students is to learn how to connect their breath to the movement and work to their edge in each pose. The practice of yoga is not about ego – as yoga teachers we encourage ‘checking ego at the door’ and coming to the mat with an open heart and open mind.
You know what confuses people a lot? This idea that Yoga is truly a ‘Practice’ and the opposite of ‘Yoga Perfect’. Yoga requires patience, consistency, and modifications. Take pigeon pose for example.
I cue students into pigeon, only a few students ease in without a problem, while many, well, lets just say their faces begin to scrunch as they wrangle their hips with discomfort on their mats. You may not be able to do pigeon in your first yoga class and maybe not in your first few months of practicing yoga. And you may need to lie on your back and try a reclining pigeon to keep your body safe. Guess what? You won’t be remembered by yoga stats…there is no such thing. Nor will you be judged on how deeply you go in the pose. So do everyone a favor and don’t judge yourself, please!
The Capital Region has many wonderful teachers offering a variety of great yoga classes. Just show up. Take the class. Roll out your mat. Listen to your breath. Try the modifications the instructor suggests with an open mind.
If I had a dime for the number of times I have heard, “I can’t do Yoga. I’m not flexible” … I’d have a lot more saved in my girls’ college funds! You know what? That is why you NEED yoga! That’s why I started going. I am a passionate triathlete and yogini (just yoga-speak for female yogi) and I witnessed an improvement in my own races once I started practicing yoga. There is no doubt that many of the benefits of yoga helped me become a better athlete. Some of these things are: improved mental clarity, connection to the breath, increased body awareness, increased core and overall strength and increased flexibility. Not to mention I used to struggle tremendously with pigeon…in fact I hated it! But with time and practice, it has become my favorite pose.
Pigeon pose may not ever be your favorite. That is okay. But with time, with props, with patience, with an increased focus on your breath, and increased body awareness…your flexibility will improve! Be patient. Practice positive self-talk and allow your mind to check out as you are carefully guided in and out of the poses.
Your body and your mind will thank you. Namaste.
This article originally appeared in The Albany Times Union Holistic Health blog on March 12, 2015.