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out of the boxThe summer before our son headed off to high school, we decided to have him assessed to learn more about the way his mind works. Because he had always been a bright and curious kid with a phenomenal memory and an abiding passion for books, we’d made the assumption that he would be an academic superstar. Suffice it to say that our assumption was more a daydream than an accurate prediction. When we met with the psychologist to receive the results of his tests, she said something to my son that I’ve never forgotten.

“You need to remember that everything we learned about you through these tests is meant to be a tool to help make you more successful in life. None of these descriptions of you is meant to be a label or a crutch.”

She went on to explain to him that just because he has an attention issue, didn’t mean he couldn’t do or shouldn’t try certain things. His diagnosis, in other words, wasn’t a free pass to throw up his hands and say, “Oh well, I can’t do that. I have an attention issue.” Rather, his diagnosis was a tool – a level of self-knowledge and self-awareness that he hadn’t had before – that would help him to create situations for himself where he could be successful at anything he set his mind to.

Even at the tender age of 14, this tremendous life lesson was not lost on him. That single meeting ignited a self-confidence in our son that we’d not seen before. Even today, almost 5 years later, he employs many of the same self-management skills that he was taught that morning.

Clearly, we’re not all fortunate enough to take a battery of tests and have an expert tell us more about ourselves. (What a luxury that would be!) But we are all able to take a step back every once in a while and reflect on our strengths and our weaknesses. In fact, doing so is a natural part of the life-long process of growing up. But as we do this introspection and reflection, we need to be careful. Unfortunately, our inner “seer” is rarely as wise and gentle as my son’s psychologist. Rather than inspiring us to be innovative in our approach to something new, it is far more typical for us to walk away from an encounter with one of our weaknesses feeling defeated and limited. “Oh well,” we think, “I can’t do that because of [insert weakness or fear or limiting belief here].”

Self-awareness has the power to change our lives. It can keep us small – hampered by our natural limitations. Or it can help us stretch to greatness because we truly understand ourselves. The power it has in our lives is up to us. It’s a choice we have to make. Consistently making the choice to grow and stretch and change takes practice.

One of the fundamental tenets of yoga is svadhyaya or self-study. As we practice yoga on our mats, we learn about our bodies – how we are weak and how we are strong, whether we are flexible or inflexible, what makes us afraid and what excites us. We also quickly learn that what we learn about our bodies one day is often not true the next. We learn, then, to hold our beliefs about ourselves lightly, giving ourselves the space to change – sometimes so quickly it’s dizzying and sometimes so slowly we would miss it, if we weren’t paying such close attention.

As we practice, we also learn about our minds. We glimpse how we are weak and how we are strong in our reactions to something that is hard for us. Do we quit? Do we keep trying? We begin to understand whether we are flexible or inflexible. After we’ve surprised ourselves a few times by doing something we were positive we couldn’t do, we will begin to suspect that our rigid ideas of what’s possible need to soften. We notice what makes us afraid and what excites us. And, over time, we notice that what once frightened us no longer does. Again, we’re left holding our beliefs about who we are with a looser grip.

As we practice, like my son, we learn to create situations – inner and outer – in which we can be successful. Some of us discover that the best way to face a fear is to jump right into the deep end, while others ease in step by step. Some of us learn patience when faced with the slow opening of tight muscles. Others learn faith when, without warning, a posture that was wholly out of reach is suddenly feasible. Some of us witness chronic negativity and, over time, slough it off. Others notice a repeated pattern of naïve optimism and, with practice, develop a healthier sense of reality. Most of us develop a more discerning ear when our inner nay-sayer begins to chant. All of us – truly all of us – will, with steady practice, become kinder and more gentle with ourselves.

The self-awareness that we develop on our yoga mats does not stay there any more than the strength and flexibility do. As we move through our lives – the challenging times and the easy times – we find ourselves relying on the lessons we learn (and practice) during our time on our mats. Like my son after listening to the psychologist, we find ourselves liberated from any labels (self-imposed or “given” to us by others) and without need of crutches. Instead, we freely shoot for the stars and follow our hearts to become the very best versions of ourselves that we can imagine.