Friday, August 28, 2009


I practice now not so much with ambition as with gratitude. And I ask myself frequently, ‘How can I express kindness right now?’ whether I am in a headstand or washing dishes.
-- Judith Lasater

Many people think of yoga as a workout, but in the yoga sutras, Patanjali described eight limbs of yoga, of which only one was physical poses. The eight limbs are:
  1. Yama - yoga ethics, ways of treating the world
  2. Niyama - principles of self-discipline and spiritual practice, ways of treating yourself
  3. Asana - physical poses
  4. Pranayama - breath control
  5. Pratyahara - withdrawal from the sensory world, inward focus
  6. Dharana- concentration
  7. Dyana- meditation, focus
  8. Samadhi - transcendence, enlightenment
Of course, like any other ancient sacred text, this is open to many variations in translation and interpretation. But my point is that the full system of yoga is much more than just a workout.

I am devoted to yoga. There's no question that I have been practicing constantly. My practice has been helping me to grow, to be happier, to manage stress better, to maybe be more compassionate in my interactions with the world. To let go of what I do not need to carry. Over the past few months, I have been working mostly with the first, second and fourth limbs.

In the past two weeks, I've returned to a more regular asana practice and feel like I'm ready to experience it in a new way. I've been making some discoveries, however, about the gap between how I see myself experiencing asana and my actual experience. For instance, I've begun attending a new studio, which I love except for one thing - the mirrors along the wall of the main room. For the past few years, I've been practicing yoga in rooms without mirrors, learning to experience the poses from the inside. Confronted with the mirrors, I can't help looking at myself. And suddenly, that judgmental voice that I thought I had exorcised comes back and says she doesn't like the way I look. And then I'm consumed by this voice. I'm suddenly just battling my self-hatred.

Next week, I'll set up away from the mirror. But that's not the point. My point is that there's still practice to be done. And the tricky thing is not judging myself for judging myself, not hating myself for hating myself. To observe the thoughts passing through without identifying with them, attaching to them. Without letting them take me over.

Here's another one. Last week I did my first headstands (by the wall). I've never been competitive with asana, and I've always had a fear of inversions, so getting upside down is a new experience for me. I learned something unexpected from all this: that the phrase I've never been competitive with asana is not truthful. It's how I would like to see myself, it's the yogini I want to be. The truth is, I was proud of getting up into headstand and I boasted about it all over the internet - and the deep motivation for that was to be praised. I was hungry for others to validate my achievement.

This became really obvious when a friend commented that she was surprised that I hadn't done a headstand before, since I always talk about how important yoga is to me and she's been doing headstands herself, without the wall. Now, I realize there's a chance my friend will read this post, and if she does, I hope she will understand that I do not write about this with any malice, but simply to examine my own reaction to her comment. Because my initial reaction was angry, defensive, indignant. At first, I wanted to reply, all holier-than-thou about how yoga was more than a physical practice to me and it wasn't a contest. Ironic, right?

If I look at my reaction more deeply, I realize that she challenged the core of my identity. I also realize that I am still clinging to all the self-judgments that are floating around in my brain. I see that I am holding so tightly to these notions of myself that I am almost willing to violate all the principles I profess to be defending.

So I did not reply to this comment, until this blog post that is. Is that progress? Maybe. It's not as easy as it sounds, to be a good person for the right reasons. Not because you want praise and validation for doing what's right. Not because it fits with your self-image. But because it really flows from the heart.

One of my teachers starts every class by suggesting that we release our expectations. I think that's a good goal to strive for. I am grateful to my friend for her comments. Like a mirror, she held my image up to me, and it was not what I expected to see.

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