Although I’ve been practicing yoga for almost 15 years, I recently stopped attending advanced classes in favor of the beginner ones. I had been finding advanced classes so challenging they were more exhausting than rewarding. I struggled to keep up with the pace, and afterward found my body aching – not in a “great workout” way, but feeling like I had strained something somewhere so deep I couldn’t point to where it was or imagine how I had done it.
I wondered why this practice I usually enjoyed suddenly felt it might no longer be for me. I longed to move slower, stay closer to the flow of my breath, and focus on my transitions and alignment. And then I accompanied a yoga newbie friend to a beginner class, and learned this is exactly what they do in there. It felt a little strange to move “down in rank,” but I didn’t let myself get too caught up in that. I was back in love with a practice that had started to feel like an obligation, and was grateful for whatever made that possible.
In a recent (beginner) class while we were resting in child’s pose, the instructor explained – as they often do – that this is the pose we should find whenever we get out of sync with our breath. She described a previous class where one of her students kept moving into all kinds of advanced variations, huffing and puffing through each one. While there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with that, she said, it’s not really in the spirit of yoga. In yoga, you want to match your movements to your breath. If movement and breath fall out of sync, what you’re doing might resemble yoga but is not really yoga.
Particularly in advanced classes, she continued, our egos often take charge and won’t allow us to care for our bodies the way we need to. They tell us we’re “supposed” to be keeping up with everyone around us, and that if we’re not, we’re failing in some way – we’re doing the class “wrong.” Especially when teaching advanced classes, she explained, she often warns her students that she won’t instruct them to take child’s pose at all, requiring them to structure their own breaks.
I couldn’t help but let a little chuckle escape into the thick yogic silence. Scaling back had been relatively easy for me to do in my yoga practice, but I wasn’t following this advice in my off-the-mat life. I had recently given up a couple of volunteer commitments and had been berating myself for it. These were things I had been incredibly excited to take on, but never seemed able to summon the time and energy with which to follow through. I had been comparing myself to the other people in these groups – they had full-time jobs and young children too, so why did it seem so easy for them to deliver? Was I lazy? Inefficient? Both?
Now, stretched out in this glorious child’s pose, I got it. The same way we all have such different physical capabilities, we also have vastly different mental and emotional limits. For instance, I have scoliosis (crooked spine), and my back can’t handle as much stress as other people’s. I don’t get mad at myself for that, I just accept it as a limitation of my body. Nor should I get mad at my mind for not excelling at juggling a million things. We can exercise our muscles (physical and otherwise) and build strength, but we can’t change the fundamental way that we are built. My body knows when I push myself too hard in life, and it rebels with clenched, sore muscles, an irritable mood, and occasional respiratory allergy attacks that won’t subside until I force adequate rest. Those are my limits, and they are as unique to me as my fingerprints.
Maybe these people I’m comparing myself to aren’t doing the “yogic breathing” of life, so to speak. I don’t know – I’m not them. It shouldn’t matter to me what THEY are doing – this is MY yoga class, MY life. I’ll do what honors my body, mind and spirit, and let them worry about honoring theirs. A pace that’s boring for one person feels chaotic to another, and vice versa. It doesn’t make one right and another wrong – it just means they’re different. There is no shame in saying “Sorry, I need to rest for a bit. I thought I could handle this and am proud of myself for reaching big, but it turns out I’m jeopardizing my health and sanity.” It’s certainly more efficient in the long run than injuring yourself because your ego wouldn’t let you back off.
Fellow Pinkies, where are you honoring yourself and your deepest needs, and where is your ego running the show? Where are you keeping up with others even though you’re straining and panting and risking serious injury? What would it take to let go and claim YOUR needs? Where are you willing to give it up, and where (and why) do you feel like you need to keep holding on?
I’m excited to hear from you -- just give me a minute to finish resting in this child’s pose.
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