I hear time and time again from my students things like, “I’ve been practicing yoga for 6 months and I still can’t reach my toes.” Or, “When I do wheel pose my arms won’t extend straight.” And, “I can’t get my heels to the floor in downdog yet, what’s wrong with me?”
My answer to them in every case is, “It’s about the journey, not the destination”.
Let me clarify. Many people believe that to be a successful yogi you must be able to perform all of the yoga postures perfectly. And that in doing so, they will be “good”, “enlightened”, or “better off than when they started”. The truth is however, is that yoga asana practice is a means to increasing body awareness so you can begin to get in touch with your inner experience of feeling, thinking, and being. Additionally, as you perform the various asanas you encourage balance in your body and mind. This balanced state of being allows you to sit and meditate with ease. Meditation is also a yogic practice; it’s just not as popular right now!
When you let go of the idea that there’s a final destination that you’re working towards in your asana practice, then what? Your goal-oriented self may feel bored, uninterested, or just plain old confused about the purpose of practicing at all. The part of you that’s addicted to “doing” may be nauseated with the idea of “being”. But, I guarantee, as you surrender your need to “get someplace” you will discover greater depth in your practice and within yourself that is very intriguing. When you make this jump, you are truly beginning your yogic journey inward and neither your practice nor your life will ever be boring again.
Let me help you make this jump. Apply these suggestions to your practice.
1. Begin by establishing healthy “outer” alignment.
“Outer” alignment teaches you how to execute a pose. It tells you to align your knee over your ankle and your hands in line with your shoulders. This allows you to embrace the general shape or outline of a pose safely and with ease. You must begin here if you are new to the practice and/or learning a new pose. While you will be engaged in a degree of “doing” as you establish your outer alignment, it provides the necessary structure for you to go deeper into the subtler realms of sensations, feelings, and thoughts.
"Outer" alignment may be assisted by using props and modifications to make the pose fit your unique body.
2. Breathe, relax, feel
Once you’ve struck a pose, breathe. Relaxed breathing in and out through the nose coincides with a relaxed body. Being relaxed does not infer you are collapsed or not-working. It simply means you have discovered a balance of effort and ease or strength and softness all at once. When you are breathing easily and are relaxed in your body you can feel more easily what’s happening inside yourself. This is where you want to get to.
3. Realign or adjust yourself from a place of “inner” body awareness
As you begin to feel your body from the inside-out you will become more aware of where you are misaligned. “Outer” alignment will only get you so far. Even if your knee looks perfectly aligned to the external eye, the intricate work of the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and nerves beneath the skin may be telling another story. When you are in a feeling-mode during asana practice, your sensitivity to how your inner body is working becomes more apparent. You can fine-tune each position more accurately from moment-to-moment-to-moment.
Alignment is not a set equation. It is an ongoing process which requires constant dialogue between the body, mind, and breath. When these three merge, the experience of spirit surfaces; I call this Ultimate Alignment.
When you experience Ultimate Alignment, you may feel immense peace, a sense of expansiveness, a deep connection to everyone and everything, and always, a quality of ‘being love’. Ultimate Alignment reveals to you your inherent state of wholeness.
Ultimate Alignment will surprise you when you least expect it. Rather than seeking it out, stay engaged consciously in the process of breathing, relaxing, and feeling. Ultimate Alignment will emerge more and more frequently as you cultivate greater and greater presence in the moment.
4. Work your edge
When you perceive a yoga posture as a destination, you arrive, set up camp, and then, often times, check out until the teacher guides you into the next pose.
However, when a yoga pose is approached as a journey, there is never a dull moment. Rather than becoming bored, you constantly “work your edge” to keep your mind’s attention enthralled with what’s happening inside of yourself.
Can you go deeper or stretch further? Can you release or relax more? Can you continue to breathe easily as you do this? Have you stopped yourself short because you “think” you can’t go any further? Are you scared of pushing yourself to find out? Do you feel uncomfortable emotions surfacing? Do you let yourself feel them or distract yourself by moving and/or thinking about something else?
“Working your edge” does not necessarily mean stretching as deeply as you can. And, it definitely does not mean pushing through painful sensations. When you “work your edge” you are engaging intensely with yourself: feelings, sensations, and thoughts. In simpler terms, you are challenging yourself to remain present to what is.
5. Be confident and stay humble.
Even if you completely accept the fact that yoga practice is about the journey not the destination, that doesn’t mean you can’t ever relish in finally being able to touch your toes or having mastered a new posture. It can feel great to witness your own growth on any level: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
At the same time, let your new found confidence be equally matched with a degree of humbleness. Be thankful for the practice, your body’s ever increasing vitality, the breath, your mind, and the teachings. There is still much more to discover, I promise!
6. Have fun!
Your essential nature is one of bliss. If your yoga practice is always serious and intense, lighten up! Although yoga can provide you with quiet, inward time that you desperately need in your life, remaining light-hearted about it all is good for your soul! Laugh at yourself, smile, and have fun!
May your yogic journey be blessed with many twists and turns. May your heart be light, may you experience Ultimate Alignment, and may you know the magnificent being that you are!
In light and love,