The student smoothly folded her legs into lotus position, pausing to make sure her heels were tucked as snugly into her body as possible. She slipped her arms through her legs and pressed her hands to her head. After five breaths folded into what looked like a piece of origami, she rolled onto her back and began to spin in a circle. As planned, she was facing the top of her mat again on her ninth breath. This was embryo pose, after all, and to arrive before the ninth breath would be “premature.” Her ability to measure the arc of her rotation was evidence of the many times she’d practiced this maneuver.
Having arrived where she began, she took another inhalation and rocked up to balance on her hands. But she missed and wound up plunking back onto her seat. Another try. Another miss. And another. Her teacher gave a loud, frustrated sigh and said, rather aggressively, “Come ON. What is your problem?” The student clenched her jaw, gritted her teeth, and tried again. While she managed to lift herself up into the hand balance and hold herself there for five breaths, there was no celebration of her success on her face. All she could think of, thanks to her teacher’s commentary, was her three failed attempts.
Doesn’t sound like a class the student would be returning to in any hurry, does it? I mean, I certainly would never treat a student like that. My job is not to belittle my students’ efforts. No good can come of that. My job is to encourage, to guide and to point out things my students are doing right. Yes, my job is also to correct. But the chances of my corrections being heard and implemented are much higher if my students are feeling good about themselves, feeling optimistic about their practices, feeling strong and capable and (just a little bit) proud. In a mindset like that, anything is possible. And, I’ve found that when people believe anything is possible, some pretty amazing things happen.
Given that her behavior had absolutely nothing in common with the way I strive to teach, I’m not proud to admit that the teacher of this poor student was actually me. Fortunately for my business, but unfortunately for my psyche, so was the student.
Why is the way I talk to myself so different from the way I talk to others? Where is my patience? Where are my words of encouragement? Where are my suggestions and ideas for improvement? Where is my cheerful optimism? Where is the lighthearted, “it’s only yoga” attitude that I bring to my classes? Most importantly, where is the gentleness and kindness that we all need and deserve?
Yoga is not about being good at it. It’s about being good to yourself.
In my classes I emphasize the healing nature of the practice. Moving into and out of these postures is so very good for us. The deep, mindful, controlled breathing is very good for us. The time away from our chatty, churning thoughts is good for us. Sweating is good for us. Working ourselves hard is good for us. Testing our limits is good for us. Learning to honor these same limits is good for us.
Curiously, how good we are at doing yoga – how bendy, how balanced, how strong – doesn’t affect how good yoga is for us. Yoga meets us where we are and delivers its gifts. In fact, I often say to my students that the only way to not receive yoga’s gifts is to not unroll your mat. And that’s also the only way to be bad at yoga. Whether you get into a posture on your first try or your third try or not at all that day, doesn’t affect whether or not the posture (or the act of trying the posture) is good for you. The simple act of practicing is all that matters. No matter what happens while you’re on it, getting on your mat is good for you. It’s an act of self-care. It’s an act of being good to yourself.
If we’re harsh with ourselves while we’re taking care of ourselves, it kind of defeats the purpose of the practice. If the way we talk to ourselves serves to deflate rather than to build up our belief in our potential, our words and our actions are working against one another. If we are mean and critical to ourselves as we work hard and try new things, it’s going to be much harder for us to stay positive, hopeful and open to the possibility of growth and change. During the practice I described above, I suspect that almost everything went smoothly. But, honestly, the only thing I remember with any clarity is the posture that I missed.
This is, in no small part, due to the way I spoke to myself that morning. Had I focused my inner commentary on all that I had done right, on all that had gone well, I suspect I would have been more light-hearted (and perhaps lighter in my movements) in my attempts at embryo pose. Had my inner teacher made a helpful suggestion rather than heaving that exasperated sigh, I suspect my second and third attempts could have been more fruitful. Had the narrative in my mind been kinder and gentler, I suspect I would have smiled at my success and probably have forgotten about my missed attempts by the time I rolled up out of savasana.
Being mean to ourselves is not good for us.
In short, the way we speak to ourselves matters. It affects more than our mood in the moment. A harsh inner voice can dampen our outlook and squelch our belief in our own potential and possibility. The next time you notice that you’re treating yourself poorly, resist the impulse to be harsh to yourself about your own harshness. (It happens.) Pause for a moment and search for something nice to notice – something you did well or something that went well enough that you can see a glimmer of what could be. It could be that you just pat yourself on the back for trying. Then, once you’re bolstered with that kindness, you can turn your awareness to something you could tweak or change to improve your results.
I’m willing to bet that, once you’re feeling good about yourself and believe again that anything is possible, something pretty amazing will happen.
Go on, give it a try.
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least. – Goethe[/mk_blockquote]
I’ve been tired and cranky lately. Always stressed. Constantly dashing. This isn’t totally surprising. After all, I’m in a stage of life that is notoriously busy – managing not only my own hectic schedule but those of three just-as-busy-as-me teens. I remind myself regularly that this is a stage – and a fleeting one at that. Soon enough, my kids will be able to drive and won’t need me to chauffeur them around town. Soon enough, they’ll be off at college and beyond and I’ll be left to fill my own days to brimming (or not) as I see fit.
But these thoughts, meant to be palliative, add a tinge of sadness to my crankiness. My knee-jerk reaction to them is that I don’t want this time to end. I don’t want to rush a single second. I don’t want to miss a minute.
It is in this instant that I get a clear glimpse of my actual problem. It isn’t the class schedule at my studio. It isn’t that I’m teaching more than I ever have. It isn’t that the volunteer project that I’m involved with has collided with a deadline for the yoga book I’m in the midst of. It isn’t any of the things I keep analyzing and studying to see if they’re the reason for my mood. It isn’t any of these things because these things are my work. I love what I do. I value it and it adds great meaning to my life.
While the reason for my crankiness isn’t my work, per se, my work is at the root of the problem. Simply put, my work has overreached its bounds in my life. The fact that it is so rewarding and that I feel so called to do it, helped to blind me as it happened. As my work has grown, it has thrown the balance between my life and my priorities out of whack. This imbalance, not my pace or the fullness of my days, is the source of the sadness and crankiness that I feel when I fall into bed each night.
Though priorities will vary person to person, as will the ratio that feels balanced, psychologists have narrowed down a group of priorities that seems to fit most. These are typically depicted on pie charts. Work. Family. Friends. Love. Self. Sleep. Some charts include a slice for chores, which I think is a good idea, as they certainly don’t fit well into any of the other areas although they do have a nasty habit of consuming time. My work slice has squeezed the other slices to a point where it’s become uncomfortable. Though I love and value all that I’m doing each day, the fact that I am not living in synch with my priorities is making me cranky.
I’m in desperate need of a realignment. Not of my priorities. They’re actually fine. I want to spend as much time as I can with my husband and kids (and maybe, just maybe, see a friend or two), and to fill the rest of my days with my practice and work. The problem is that I’ve allowed my daily schedule to get out of synch with my priorities. This happened a little bit at a time – the sum total of many, seemingly inconsequential choices. Each time I said yes to one more little commitment – “after all, it’s for the church.” Each time I added a lesson or a class – “after all, she’s doing so well!” Each time I agreed to another meeting – “Everyone else Is making time to attend.” Each time I thought, “Well, it’s only one thing, I can probably squeeze it in.” Each of these choices, despite my good intentions, helped to throw my life a little more out of balance.
Being out of balance is a curious thing to watch. Most people slip slowly out of balance. In a yoga class, I can actually watch it happening. As if in slow motion, my student’s standing leg will lose energy, the ribs on one side will start to droop toward their hip, one shoulder may start to crunch up toward their ear (as if that could somehow hold them up!) or their back may begin to curve forward. The instant they realize that they’re out of balance all slowness disappears. Usually, their arms suddenly whip out to the side or even flail around. Sometimes, their whole body jerks upright. Sometimes, they even yelp or gasp.
Nine times out of ten, it’s not the slow slip out of balance that knocks them over. It’s their sudden, quick, forceful correction that takes care of that. If I’m right there behind them, we can, together, sometimes salvage the posture. My quiet suggestions are not anything brilliant or earth-shattering. Rather, they are a steady repetition of the basics of our opening standing position, Samasthiti. “Steady. Power up your foundation. Lift your sternum. Engage your core. Breathe.” These basics are essentially a return to the priorities of every yoga posture – calm, focus, finding a sturdy foundation, extension of the spine, awareness of the center and the breath. With these priorities again at the helm, it is possible to save any posture, even one that is precariously out of balance.
Now that I’ve recognized that my priorities have slipped out of balance, I must choose how to respond. Like my students who knock themselves over trying not to fall, my instincts scream in a panic, desperately seeking an immediate solution, a quick fix. “You need to cut classes from your schedule! Work less!! Be more present for the kids before they leave home!!! Pay more attention to your marriage!!!! To the house!!!!! To the dog …” Luckily, the yoga teacher in me is quietly suggesting another possibility. Hers is much less hasty and more thoughtful than her reactive counterpart. “Let’s get back to the basics. What matters most to you? What feeds your spirit? What do you love?”
A deep breath and I realize that shuttering my studio would be shuttering one of the brightest spots in my days. Another deep breath and I realize that neither the kids nor my husband are around for me to care for or to dote upon all day. A third deep breath and I realize that I don’t want to spend more time working around the house or taking care of my dog. Another, and I can almost laugh with relief – simply remembering what’s truly important to me has proven to be a big step in resetting my balance. From this perspective, the adjustments I need to make actually seem do-able. From this perspective, balance appears to be totally salvageable.
PS. I am already feeling decidedly less cranky.
If you read my essays regularly, you know that I believe that the way yoga changes our bodies is the least of its gifts. That said, a regular yoga practice does change the body – sometimes in really dramatic ways. Not only does practicing make us leaner, but it creates muscle tone and definition. (I know you know what I’m talking about – Madonna’s killer arms, Jennifer Aniston’s lean physique, your neighbor’s perky bottom.) The more vigorous types of yoga can enhance strength and endurance. All yoga improves posture, which is a huge benefit as the way we carry ourselves has a great impact on how we look.
It is important to note that all of these physical changes touch more than just our ego as we look in the mirror. They also improve the way we feel – physically, mentally and emotionally. When we feel better in our bodies – free of nagging discomforts, able to breathe deeply, healthy and strong – we are simply nicer people. When we’re pleased with the way we look, we’re more confident, a little braver, more willing to go out on a limb, prepared to greet people with a ready smile. It’s also a fact that when we feel better physically, we feel better emotionally – we have a brighter outlook, more energy and more bandwidth to navigate the peaks and valleys of each day.
But there’s no way yoga can change your body unless you practice. Reading about the practice, signing up for classes, buying a mat or a pair of stretchy pants just won’t do the trick. You’ve got to show up to the classes. You’ve got to put on your new pants, unroll that mat, breathe deeply and move. In other words, you’re not going to get the butt you want by sitting on it!
You’ve got to do the work to reap the rewards. And yoga is generous with – and fairly quick to deliver – its rewards. When I first started practicing, within only a few weeks I could see and feel changes in my body. Many students say the same to me. This is a way that the practice keep us coming back for more.
It is also a way that yoga teaches us – quite viscerally – that hard work pays off.
As is yoga’s tendency, the lessons we learn on our mats rarely stay there. The quick and dramatic results we see from our practice can inspire us to a powerful notion. We begin to wonder what would happen if, rather than wishing, or planning, or dreaming or hoping, we’d get off our butts (i.e. show up and do the work). This applies to anything – things we’d like to do, become or achieve. Better yet, we begin to believe that doing, becoming and achieving are totally within the realm of possibility.
Being certain (or at least very hopeful) in the possibility of great change, in turn, inspires us. We become willing to stretch ourselves further. To challenge ourselves. To take risks. To have high hopes and big dreams. That job you want suddenly seems achievable. The family environment you yearn for suddenly seems possible. A damaged relationship suddenly seems fixable. That new skill – learning to play the guitar, to ballroom dance, to knit or to speak Arabic – all seem within reach. Because you know that all it takes is (to quote my dad) “a little elbow grease.”
And you know you’re capable of elbow grease! After all, just take a look at all you’ve been able to do on your mat!
So, whether you’re hoping for a perky bottom, a new career or to live a more peaceful life, take a lesson from your mat. You’ve got to get off your butt, show up and do the work. When you do, anything – absolutely anything! – is possible.
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]Everything is hard before it is easy. — J.W. Goethe[/mk_blockquote]
When I came across this quote on Pinterest, instantaneously, a list of activities where these words apply in my life sprang to mind. Creating spreadsheets. Baking a pie. Hitting a backhand volley. Playing a piano piece by Bach. Playing that same piece in public. Almost every single yoga posture I practiced on my mat this morning.
So much truth in such a neat little sentence! It is truly an aphorism – a pithy observation that contains a general truth. It is almost breathtaking in its ability both to soothe and inspire – to soothe the ruffled feathers of frustration and to inspire the persistent, patient hard work needed to figure something (anything!) out. I couldn’t wait to see if it resonated as much sense with my family as it did with me. So I asked them, “Can you think of something that was hard before it was easy?”
My middle child listed skiing, being on stage and putting on makeup. I asked what had changed to make those things easier and she said, “More experience just made doing them easier.” Smart girl.
My youngest said that making her bed was hard when she was little because she wasn’t big enough to reach and she’d get frustrated, but now that she was bigger it was easier to do. Good angle – growing makes things easier. (For the record, she NEVER makes her bed. Just sayin’.)
My oldest said auditioning. And throwing a Frisbee. When asked what had changed, he looked at me like I was dumb as a stump and said, “Practice. Duh.” (Perhaps another aphorism?)
After his long list of athletic activities met with a lukewarm response from me, my husband said it was really hard to think like a lawyer when he first got out of law school. He went on to say, “While it isn’t necessarily easy now, it feels natural.” Ahhh. Maybe easy is an oversimplification.
When we’re new to something, it’s hard. Especially if it’s something that requires many steps, or a subtle mix of movements or ingredients – like baking, applying make-up, playing a complicated piece of music or moving into a yoga posture. We need to fumble around a bit. We need to try out a few different ways of doing it until we discover the way that works for us. We need to find our own way. In essence, we need to build up some experience in order to develop proficiency and even ease. Interestingly, we all don’t find the same ways to proficiency. It’s fascinating to me to watch different students move into the same yoga posture. Everyone goes about it a little differently depending on their own strengths, weaknesses and preferences. Finding the way that works for us is not simply a matter of following instructions. Like my middle child pointed out, it requires exploration and experimentation.
Sometimes, as my youngest pointed out, we need a little more than practice. Sometimes, we need to grow a little bit. In her case, she had to literally grow longer legs and arms so that reaching across to the far side of her bed was possible without kneeling on the same sheets and blankets that she was trying to smooth. Though my arms and legs haven’t grown in a long while, I can definitely relate to her experience. I’ve tried plenty of yoga postures that I wasn’t strong enough or bendy enough or even brave enough for — yet. Like my daughter, I needed to grow a little bit before these postures became easier for me to do.
Sometimes, as my son mentioned, it’s simply more repetition that we need. While practice may not make us perfect, it certainly makes us better. Whether it’s getting comfortable with an experience such as auditioning or performing, doing it more often can cure us of nerves. Repetition also makes the new thing not-so-new. Practice smoothes the rough edges of our efforts. Familiarity allows us to focus on the nuances of what we’re doing so that we can do it better rather than pouring all our energy into the act of just getting it done. This, too, I’ve seen on my mat. I vividly remember the jerky, spastic way I felt when moving through my sun salutations when I first started practicing yoga. Even before I accomplished any proficiency to speak of, my movements began to smooth out and fall into an easy rhythm. “Practice. Duh.”
Sometimes, it would be impossible to say that the thing we’re doing has become easy. As my husband pointed out, though he has been an attorney for over 20 years, thinking like a lawyer (something he does every single day) isn’t easy, but it does feel natural to him now. I’ve been seriously working on a series of postures (Ashtanga’s second series) for over two years now. The thought of saying that these postures are easy now is outlandish enough to make me laugh out loud. This is, hands down, the hardest thing I’ve tried to do – definitely in recent memory, but maybe ever. But, when I step back to look at my journey over the course of those two years, I see, while they are in no way easy, these postures do feel natural to me now.
I can even say that they feel “easier.” What’s changed for me in this series is an amalgamation of everything my family shared with me. I’ve explored and experimented with these postures enough to develop a degree of proficiency. I’ve been able to add my own experiences to what I’ve been taught to create my own “take” on them. I’ve grown a bit – developing (some of) the strength and flexibility that I didn’t have initially that makes these postures more accessible. And I’ve practiced (duh!) them an awful lot.
Take a quick look at your life. What is hard for you right now? Now, take heart. Whatever is challenging you right now, remember, with a little growth, some experience, and a lot of practice (duh!), one day it will seem easy (or at least natural) to you.