What are the strategies that can turn this stumbling block into an opportunity to grow and learn and transcend?
Don’t Give Up! When the going get’s tough, that is the time when your practice can become truly transformative, but not if you completely give up! Keep going but sometimes it’s just the right thing to do to back off for a while. In a yoga practice, we’re always aiming to find the balance between nurturing ourselves and challenging ourselves. If a pose is becoming so much of a struggle that you’re in danger of injuring yourself or if it’s making your practice a place of misery and pain, then back off for a while. You could try doing a modification, or other poses that will help to open your body or strengthen your muscles to make that pose more accessible. Sometimes we actually make poses harder for ourselves by trying too hard, if we could just relax and breathe maybe the pose will just come. Or you could focus on something else. It could be your breath, or connection to your core strength, or your use of bandhas – there are literally hundreds of ways to focus your practice in ways that are rich and deep and rewarding. If you’re not sure what to do, talk to your teacher. Ask for the help you need.
Make it ‘Your Project’.
Each year on my teacher training we set a ‘least favourite posture project’. Each student chooses the pose they like the least and researches it, what muscles need to stretch? Which muscles have to be strong? What are other people’s top tips? How do they feel emotionally when they are in the pose? At the end of the training they give a 5-minute presentation to the other student about the pose. And guess what…nearly always at the end of this process the least favourite pose becomes one of their favourites.
We are often our own worse enemy. Often the way we talk to ourselves mentally is cruel, harsh, judgemental and downright rude. A while ago I started to watch how I talked to myself mentally and I was shocked. I was so mean and rude! After that I tried to apply the principle that if I wouldn’t say something to someone else (out of compassion and love and common decency) then I should apply the same consideration to myself. It changed things pretty radically.
Often this pattern of mentally criticising ourselves can go unnoticed for years – it’s such an ingrained part of our mental chatter we don’t even realise it’s there. These unhelpful criticisms become the unconscious backdrop to our lives. Often when we are doing our yoga practice we have such high expectations of ourselves that the practice becomes something we inflict on our self.
So when you’re doing your yoga practice replace ‘I can’t do this so I am a failure’ with a more simple ‘I can’t do this’. Also try saying to yourself ‘I am trying something difficult and I’m proud of myself for trying’ or ‘I am perfect just as I am’. This is for me one of the most important teachings of yoga. We are already perfect, we have nothing to achieve, nowhere to go; we just need to be able to see our own perfection.
If we criticise ourselves then we probably criticise other people. We walk around all day putting ourselves and other people down. We really do create our own suffering! Start by noticing your critical thoughts, maybe write them down. Then see if they are enhancing you life and making you happier….or not! Then if you feel that it’s right, have the intention to let those thoughts go.
(Dona Farhi ‘Mind Body and Spirit’ and Judith Lasater ‘Living Your Yoga’ both talk about this very clearly.)
In the Yoga Sutras non-attachment (vairagya) is said to be just as important as practice (Abhyasa). (YS 1.12-16). Non-attachment can be a difficult concept to understand at first. It doesn’t mean not caring. It doesn’t mean not trying. We still care and we still try our best to be all we can be. But we let go of the end result. So in a yoga pose we try our best but know that if we never get to ‘do’ the ‘full’ pose that is fine. All those clichés are true; it’s the taking part not the winning that’s important. If we are constantly striving to achieve something, then we miss what we can actually do right now. This striving becomes a mind-set, so even if we do achieve whatever it is we wanted to do, we will just start striving for something else. Years can pass by with us always dissatisfied, always reaching for something just out of our grasp and missing what we can actually do and enjoying and celebrating it. Also we can’t all do everything, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and that makes the world a richer more interesting and beautiful place.
Give Yourself The Present.
Yoga is not about being able to do fancy beautiful poses. According to the Yoga Sutras, yoga is stopping the disturbances of the mind. Being present and aware is much more important than being able to jump around like a crazy thing tied up in a knot. That has its place (I think) but it’s not what it’s all about. It’s about focus, peace, clarity, stillness, awareness, connection, acceptance. It’s about being in the present moment. Not sweating and grunting and criticising ourselves for not being able to do something. As students we need to keep sight of that and as teachers we need to keep reminding our students (and ourselves). One of the ways we can achieve this is by aiming for the yin concept of allowing the yoga practice to happen. We show up on our mat, we put ourselves in the pose and then we allow it to happen. We focus on the breath, the dristi, the bandhas, and then the yoga just happens – it’s not something we can actively do, we need to get ourselves out of the way. And we do that through focus.
Look in the Mirror!.
Yoga is a mirror. It enables us to see ourselves clearly. If we are being self-critical and judgemental and frustrated and goal oriented in a yoga class, we are probably doing the exact same thing in the rest of our life. Likewise if we are fearful in our yoga practice we probably are in the rest of our life. Living our life feeling dissatisfied and feeling like a failure, feeling stressed and unhappy and fearful. Not much fun! And we are creating those unhappy feelings by believing the thought ‘I should be able to do this – now!’ The good news is that to change our experience of reality, the only thing that has to change is our thinking ‘I can’t do this right now and that’s fine. I’ll try my best and see what happens’. This shift in thinking changes everything. We don’t have to be able to do the pose to be happy; we just have to change our thinking about the pose. The same is true for anything that makes us unhappy or impatient. It’s not the reality of the situation that’s making us stressed; it’s our thinking about the situation. We create our own reality by the story we tell our self about that reality. (This is explained beautifully by Byron Katie in her book ‘Loving What Is’.)
If our yoga practice always felt nice and good then it would never challenge us. And it’s in those periods of challenge that transformation can happen. It can be hard and it can be uncomfortable but it’s always worth it in the end. So when the going get’s tough…you know what to do!
This article was contributed by Melanie Cooper – Melanie has been teaching yoga for 16 years and teacher training for 8 years. She divides her time between London and Goa practicing and teaching. She currently runs the morning Ashtanga self practice at The Life Centre in Islington and runs annual teacher trainings in London and Goa. She has practiced at Ashtanga Yoga London for many years, and has also studied with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Myosre. melaniecooper.co.uk
About the editor
Passionate about wellness, yoga, meditation, and raw food – Cheryl Slater heads up the social media team for Yoga Magazine and her business Soul Seed Media specialises in providing social media and PR support to holistic businesses.