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Don't Forget! Yoga Postures are not the Point of the Practice

Getting caught up in performing postures

As often as possible, I try to attend workshops with teachers who have studied directly with the creators of Ashtanga yoga. As a teacher who has yet to be able to travel to “the source” (Mysore, India), these classes are my way of ensuring that I’m sharing this practice as it is intended to be shared.

Whenever I go to these trainings, I feel a surprising amount of performance anxiety. In fact, the whole room often seems to be vibrating with the same nervous energy that is making me feel jittery. There is something about a roomful of “serious” yogis studying (perhaps for the first time) with a “serious” yoga teacher that quite literally flips the typical energy of a yoga class onto its proverbial head.

Over the years, I’ve learned that some things will always happen in the 15 minutes before the teacher instructs the students to “reach up” in the first sun salutation:

  • Every single time, while I’m creaking into my first down-dog, someone in the room will be “warming up” in a handstand.
  • Every single time the handstand happening across the room on someone else’s mat will leave me feeling somewhat small and unworthy.
  • Every single time I will feel like the I am the only person who doesn’t know anyone (everyone!) else in the room.
  • Every single time I will have a thought (or series of thoughts) that riffs on this general idea: “I am going to look like a fool for even thinking I’m good enough to be here.”

In other words, the minutes before a workshop begins can feel like a quick trip back in time to the emotions and insanity of seventh grade. Whee!

An excellent teacher sets things straight

I’m lucky to have studied with one teacher in particular who is famous enough to create an epic level of pre-workshop tension. But he is also quite gifted in calming these anxious environments. As soon as the first student arrives at the first posture that he or she cannot do, David Swenson laughingly quips,

“It’s only yoga! You’re still a good person.”

Whether he makes this comment in a posture I’m able to do or one I’m still working on, the obvious truth in his lighthearted, gentle statement never fails to make me laugh out loud at my desperate zeal to do the posture right (or to do it at all). It’s only yoga! Nothing in the world will become better or worse if I succeed or fail at this little feat on my mat. In fact, there is no room for success or failure on my mat. There is only room for trying – again and again and again.

This message can be as hard to understand as the postures are to do

When you’re talking to a room full of Ashtanga yogis (which Swenson usually is), this statement is even more daring. After all, in traditional Ashtanga  yoga, you must “succeed” to some level in a posture in order to be invited to try the next posture in the series or to be invited to begin to practice the next series. (The “Holy Grail” for Ashtangis seems to be getting to the “next” series.)

I’ve often thought one of the reasons Swenson can get away with being so apparently flippant about the postures is that he is one of the original western Ashtanga students. Not only has he been practicing for decades, but he also happens to be a human rubber band who is able to do all of the postures he is telling his classes are “only yoga.”

What’s happening on your mat is not the point. What’s happening in your head is.

As funny as his comment is, it is also pretty profound. It is quite easy (and tempting) to get distracted with the hard, physical work you’re doing on your yoga mat. It is similarly easy to feel disappointed in yourself if you’re having a tired or tight day. It is also very tempting to feel great about yourself on the days when your leg slips neatly and painlessly behind your head.

To say it another way, it is easy to forget that the yoga postures themselves are not the point. They are not the goal of yoga. The postures are a means to an end. We jump around on our yoga mats NOT to get better at contorting ourselves into more and more fantastic shapes and positions. We do all of this jumping around to quiet our minds. And we quiet our minds to find peace, to find comfort with stillness, to delve into the depths of our being.

To borrow from Swenson, you jump around on a yoga mat to discover that –whether it’s a good day or a bad day – you are still a good person. You are valuable. You are important. You are lovable and loving. The same is true for me, warming up in my creaky down-dog. And the same is true for the human rubber band across the room warming up in a handstand.

Today (or tomorrow, or next week …) when you practice and you come to a posture you can’t do, I hope you smile as you remind yourself that “It’s only yoga. You’re still a good person.” In fact, because you are practicing all of yoga, not just the postures, you’re going to roll up your mat when you’re finished an even better person.

If you’ve been looking for a yoga class where what’s happening in your head and heart are honored as much (if not more than) what’s happening on your mat, Yoga With Spirit is for you!