“The success of Yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.” ~ T.K.V. Desikachar
When I tell people I teach yoga, there’s only a handful of different responses I generally get. Most commonly, it’s some version of “Oh, I could never do yoga. I’m not flexible enough/don’t have enough balance/I’m too stressed out.”
The yoga communities on Instagram have been a wonderful resource for connecting and inspiring people. Unfortunately, the prevalence of perfect poses against beautiful sunsets by women dressed in name brand gear can also have the effect of intimidating people who have no experience with yoga. It creates this environment where people who can’t pop up into crow feel like they can’t even start on the journey.
I admit, handstands are impressive. The full expression of king dancer is gorgeous. But these flashy poses—and the accompanying exotic backdrops — are not yoga. You don’t have to be able to tuck your foot behind your head to practice. You don’t even have to be able to touch your toes.
Yoga, in Sanskrit, roughly translates to “yoke,” or a joining of two or more thing. It is a system designed to bring together the body, mind, and spirit into one, integrated whole.
“The meaning of our self is not to be found in its separateness from God and others, but in the ceaseless realization of yoga, of union.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore
The asanas, all those pretty poses, are only a small part of the whole, and not even the most important part. The physical practice of asanas is to prepare the body for long periods of meditation. When one is strong, and flexible, it becomes easier to sit still for longer periods of time without experiencing undue discomfort.
In order to get to that place, however, you have to start from where you are. There is no other option, by definition. A disturbingly high number of people in current Western cultures find themselves overworked, over scheduled, and undernourished.
It is from this place of frazzled anxiety that transformation begins, not from the top of a mountain, or tucked away in an ashram. Taking one small step — a single yoga class, five minutes of meditation — is the only way to start down a path that could, eventually, lead to a perfectly executed scorpion.
More importantly, with dedication that step leads toward self-awareness, self-love, and a greater sense of compassion for the world at large. Arm balances are optional.
No one is ‘good’ at yoga when they begin. There are people who, because of a background in gymnastics or pilates or martial arts, can immediately get into challenging poses. However, the internal workings, such as breath and focus, come only with time and practice, and they are far more important.
A student who stays in child’s pose, but is continually connected with the ebb and flow of breath and has developed a strong internal focus, is far better off than the student who flies through sun salutations without breathing, all the while worrying about work or the grocery list.
It is possible to use yoga asanas as a purely physical exercise, and there will certainly be a physical benefit reaped. Without practicing the other seven limbs of yoga — pranayama (breath work), the yamas and niyamas (ethical practices and self-discipline), etc. — a student severely limits the level of inner transformation available to them. And yet, if the initial attraction to yoga comes from a place of wanting to look great in a bikini, I think it should be encouraged.
“Penetration of our mind is our goal, but in the beginning to set things in motion, there is no substitute for sweat.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar
When I first started practicing, ten years ago, I came to yoga because it was a better option for me than weightlifting or endless, boring hours on the treadmill. It took seven years, a divorce, and the loss of a dream before the deeper benefits of yoga began to take hold. Because I already had some background in the physical practice, the foundation for my spiritual growth was in place.
Yoga isn’t about starting out as a bendy, tranquil embodiment of peace and love. It’s about learning to love yourself, one small—sometimes painful—step at a time.
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