It's been said that yoga is the ultimate journey into the self. Practices like meditation, pranayama, and asana are simple mirrors into our relationships with ourselves. And like anything worth doing in life, yoga can be as challenging as it is uplifting.
Here are some tips to help you withstand the difficulties that arise on your mat.
Don’t get mad at the pose.
The poses that frustrate me the most, the ones I quickly want to dismiss or avoid, are precisely the ones I need. Whether it be the depth of a very open backbend I fear, surrendering into a deep hip opener, finding stillness in a simple seat or a quiet mind while resting in savasana, my reactions have something to teach me.
Opening the heart wide in a deep backbend conjures up sensations surrounding vulnerability, control, and the unknown. I was guarded much of my life and it's no coincidence when I learned to embrace the excitement over leading with my heart in a big expressive pose, I simultaneously acquired the trust and guts to live that openly off the mat.
Both are still works in progress, but the mat is so often a metaphor for life, and what I experience in my practice will inevitably be reflected outside of it as well. Watch your reactions, notice the sensations and thoughts that arise, and observe when these similar patterns are experienced in the real world.
Your mind understands it before your body does.
I see this so often. Students see what their bodies need to do, where they need to go, it just so happens their bodies have not caught up to their minds. It often takes years to reverse built up tension, to gently progress the body past injuries, and to build the required strength and control needed to find success in certain asanas.
Without hastily throwing yourself in and out of a posture, allow one of your favorite teachers to intelligently guide you into it. Nearly every pose we practice will have a slew of precursors, we call them kramas, or steps, to getting there.
Depending on the day or stage in your current evolution, your body may plateau at one of the many build-up phases to a pose. Wherever you are is a beautiful place to be. It’s important to respect and honor where your body is today, in this moment, and not to wish it were any different.
Don't compare your practice to anyone else’s.
It was the bold and prolific Teddy Roosevelt who wisely reminded us “comparison is the thief of joy,” and there are few truer words spoken. It's imperative to remember that yoga is a practice, not a performance. Each time I find myself even comparing one of my own practices to that of another day, I must be reminded of these truths. We don’t compare our own practices except to learn and become more fascinated with our growth, and we certainly avoid viewing our journey through the lens of another.
No one’s path was carved with the same unique physical and emotional challenges as yours. We all endured a journey in getting here, and while some may enter the asana practice with some physical advantages (perhaps they’re athletes, dancers, gymnasts, etc.), we have no clue what heartaches and troubles may’ve put one at an emotional disadvantage. We all have baggage. We all have patterns. We all have very specific paths out of darkness and into light. Respect yourself and others while falling in love with your personal adventure.
Use yoga props—they're not admittance of defeat.
I often see students resisting the use of blocks, straps, and other tools as if it's some admittance of weakness. Quite the contrary, using props showcases intelligence and strength. Depending on your anatomy, there may be poses that will forever remain out of reach without a little "Go-Go-Gadget-Arm" (my lame little reference, which maybe half of my students get) for help. Blocks give us extra length, stability, support and lift.
The use of a block and/or strap will equip us in finding a more ideal alignment in a pose. In triangle pose, for instance, the use of a block underneath the bottom arm can not only help us from hyper-extending the front knee, but can be pivotal in maintaining length on all sides of the body so we don’t collapse, tilt the pelvis in the wrong direction, or misalign the spine. It allows for a smarter pose to take over the body, but even better, it brings in more ease and comfort.
Breath is your greatest tool and best friend.
There is no greater gift yoga extracts than that of a slow, controlled breath. Beyond the benefits to the mind, body and heart, the breath is a crucial component in bettering your experience in a pose. Whether it aids in softening the hardened edges, melting the subtle body deeper, or working through difficult emotional responses conjured on and off the mat, awareness of breath will help you through it.
It seems so frequently in this practice yoga is revealing what was always there, like wiping dirt off the face of a beautiful woman. The breath is always there. Your ability to feel compassion, sympathy and love for another never goes away. Try turning the light of support on yourself, breathe through your challenges, accept and even get enthused about the particular path only you will walk, and open yourself to all the beauty you’ve always had within.