If you love yoga as much as I do then you’ve probably googled yoga more than a few times and been bombarded by images of models in exotic locations standing on their heads or doing what seems like impossible, gravity defying yoga poses. If you’re like me, then you will also compare yourself to these people and come up feeling second best.
It can be easy to get caught up in the physical poses and admire these people for their strength and prowess. What I find frustrating as a yogi and a teacher is this proliferation and glorification of the physical poses over the other aspects of yoga. To tell you the truth, the thing I find most satisfying as a teacher is not when a student masters a new pose but when they actually learn to listen to their body and find stillness. The moments that I remember and make me proud to do what I do are NOT when a student is touching their toes for the first time or standing on their head, but when a student spends the whole class in savasana because that’s what her body is asking of her or when a student tells me he caught a glimpse of bliss in meditation.
Most of us are attracted to yoga as a form of physical exercise, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. While it can be satisfying to master a pose we’ve been working on, we need to be aware of the rising ego and its need for approval and validation. But it can quickly turn into a circus if the ego dominates our practice and we become obsessed with the physical poses or lose sight of the fact that yoga makes us feel good on the inside, regardless of how we look on the outside. I’m the first to admit that I’ve spent hours practicing my headstands and still wish I could do hanamanasana (full splits) with my torn hamstring, but some days I don’t practice asana at all and just sit still watching my thoughts. While meditation and mindfulness is gaining in popularity it’s nowhere near as popular as blogs and posts on ‘how to do a headstand’ or the guy in scorpion pose on the edge of a cliff. Perhaps because the effort and ability is so visible in these physical poses, it is so easy to overlook the skill and effort required to be still. I recently had to tell the daughter of one of my students in a meditation class that even though it doesn’t look like it, Mummy is doing one of the hardest things ever.
The physical poses or asana, are just one step on the journey towards inner peace and self-realisation, they aren’t the goal or the destination. It can be easy to lose this perspective. As I guide you through a series of poses, it’s not meant to be ‘Simon says’, with you imitating me, but rather a rhythmic way of getting out of your head and re-connecting with your physical body. Sure it feels good to melt away tension and develop strength and flexibility but without the focus on the breath and the development of the mind/body connection, you may as well be doing Pilates, Cross Fit or any other exercise fad. The difference between yoga and other forms of exercise is that yoga is intended to be a spiritual practice, a journey towards our higher selves. The asanas are just a means to an end.
So next time you experience yoga envy, either online or in class, remember the real work in yoga is inner work. The ability to be still with your thoughts, to draw your attention inwards, to regain control over your busy mind and experience peace is the true nature of yoga.