Last night, out with my nearest and dearest, I got in a conversation with a gentleman on the next bar stool over. As with most first-time conversations, after we got through the parts about our ages and how many kids we have, he asked me what I did for a living.
“You’ve got about three-quarters of a beer left, that should be enough time,” I said, and launched into the longgggggggg list of things I do to make ends meet. When I got to “yoga instructor”, he responded in the way most people do.
“I’ve never done yoga; I’m really not that flexible.”
Ah yes, I’ve heard that before. I’ve said that before. And I’ve said it recently, but ended that statement with the word “today”. I totally get it. You see all these photos and videos on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook, Flexi-Lexis all twisted up into pretzels and launching their legs up into handstands with ease. Guess what? Those postures took some time to get. A few days ago, I posted a video of myself taking a supported headstand (salamba sirsasana), a posture I take before any practice because of how it realigns my spine and resets my mind. I’ve often been asked by other members of my studio how I’m able to take it so flawlessly without falling over, and without using the wall or an instructor for assistance. The answer is simple: I took the posture daily, for several months, against a wall, or with the assistance of a friend. Once I was able to come up without touching the wall, or being kept in balance by a friend (having developed muscle memory for the posture), I moved away from the wall. What that video doesn’t show is all the times my feet landed against the wall before I straightened up my legs, it doesn’t show all the times I fell out of the posture, and it doesn’t show all the times a friend or an instructor was there keeping me from falling over. Whereas there are postures that come natural to each person practicing yoga, they’re all different, and different factors lead to what our strengths are. A yogi who can take full Lotus might not be able to get their handstand, and vice versa. Postures that were easy to come by on one day, might not come so easy the next day, or the next week.
Here’s a brief overview of what yoga really is: yoga is a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual practice that dates back at least 5,000 years. Pantanjali, the father of yoga and author of the Yoga Sutras, divided the practice of yoga into eight limbs, postures being the third limb.
That means that when you’re talking about being flexible, or not, as my friend last night described himself, you’re just dealing with one part of the larger picture. Let’s break this down in a way that’s relatable to most of us: Say you have a pie. The pie is cut into eight slices. If you eat one, that one slice you just enjoyed covers the physical aspect of yoga, the asanas.
And if you’re like me, that one slice is just not enough. I want the whole damn thing. Give me more pie, or in this case, yoga please. I’ll take the whole shebang.
Remember those limbs I was talking about? Well, I’m going to start telling you about them. But let’s start at the first and go from there, shall we?
The first limb of yoga are the Yamas. Yamas are simply things we abstain from, guidelines in living a kinder, more mindful, more compassionate and loving life, not just towards our fellow man, but towards ourselves as well.
The first of the Yamas is Ahimsa. Ahimsa translates to “non-violence”. There’s the obvious no-brainer that you don’t hit people. But taking a bit further, practicing Ahimsa means we live without harm in word, thought and action. Not just to other people, but to ourselves. We approach all situations with compassion and understanding. How often are we driving in traffic, and someone cuts us off, and our reaction is to give them a single finger salute, or curse loudly? What if we took just a moment and considered that maybe, that person was rushing to the hospital because a person they loved was hurt? Maybe they were rushing to get home to their child. Or maybe they just weren’t thinking. Just because someone behaves in a negative manner, we don’t need to respond in the same way. We are not responsible for other people’s actions, but we are very responsible for our own reactions.
How often are we in a situation where we beat ourselves up over an error in judgement? We tend to be our own worst enemies, when we should be our own best friends. We should handle ourselves with love, first and foremost, and remember that past mistakes aren’t what matters. What matters is what we do moving forward in our lives.
On our mats, how often do we come to our practice with unrealistic expectations? How often are we angry when postures aren’t coming to us as easily as they have in prior practices, or when our neighbor on the mat can take the full expression when we’re barely able to take the posture?
Last December, I became determined to get my handstand. I signed up for a private lesson with Becca at my studio. For an hour, we worked on different techniques, Becca very patiently guiding me through possible ways to get my handstand. At the end of the hour, I got…… Nope. Didn’t get it. Because my focus was on the destination, not the journey itself. The more I tried, the more frustrated I became, the farther I was from my goal of getting my toes up in the air with my shoulders over my wrists.
I worked on my handstand practice before class for the next few weeks. Rolling into the New Year, I finally decided to just let go and stop putting pressure on myself. On a Friday afternoon, after an intense HIIT weight session, I had gone to the studio after, due to the gentle and detox classes being beneficial in eliminating most, if not all, of my muscular pain the day after weight training.
Unrolling my mat, I debated: did I work on my handstand? I was tired, my body was aching, and what I wanted was to sprawl out on my mat in the ten minutes we had before practice began. I finally decided to give it five handstand attempts. If I didn’t make it, I didn’t make it, but at least I would know that I had tried.
By the fourth handstand, my calves and hamstrings were signaling me it was about time to consider stopping. “Just one more, then rest,” I said to myself. I planted my hands, inhaled and exhaled while lifting my right leg higher with each inhale. On the third inhale, I lifted off, both legs coming up, my feet landing on the mirror behind me. “Oh my Lord,” I’d said, as the yogis in the room applauded. I held the handstand for about twenty seconds before laughing my way out of it in joy.
I had come into my practice that day with no expectations, no goal in mind, other than to be in the moment, and accept what was presented to me. I had put no pressure on myself, experiencing no anger when I didn’t make my handstand. I simply allowed what was meant to be, to be.
Be kind to others and yourself, no matter the situation. Approach all things with love, with kindness, with gratitude, with compassion.