This was previously featured on YogaAnonymous now Wanderlust.
My writing teacher in college would often quote Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner by encouraging us to "let go of [our] darlings," dispense with the words that we were holding onto selfishly that had already outgrown their purpose. This wonderful expression has stuck with me even up till now in my practice. By 'darlings', I refer to the asanas we love to do. Don’t get me wrong - there’s nothing bad about having an asana (or more) that you enjoy practicing and that benefits you. We do however have a tendency of getting addicted to accomplishments. While asanas comprise of a single limb of an eightfold path to a meaningful life as described by sage and author Patanjali, we sometimes view an asana as a means to an end. We have to remind ourselves what drew us towards yoga in the first place - it being a practice of process and discovery rather than of achievement.
Patanjali also said in his sutras, “Tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam," then the seer dwells in his own true splendor. In other words, yoga is a practice of uncovering who we truly are. The asana then is just a medium through which we derive insight and revelation. What we do "on the mat" is simply a microcosm of what unfolds "off the mat." More than a postural movement, the awareness it brings can create profound shifts in mindsets that help us to navigate our realities. We can learn more about who we are, or conversely, unlearn what we think we know of ourselves, especially in moments of challenge.
In class, whenever a student would be confronted with an asana that he/she would find bewildering, I would prompt them to ask themselves: why? An advanced yoga posture does not necessitate an advanced practice. Self-enquiry or Svadhyaya is an important Niyama or observance that we tend to overlook.To quote Walt Whitman in his poem “Song of Myself," he tells us that knowing the self is the consummation of a search requiring patience, persistence and practice:
"Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged Missing me one place search another I stop somewhere waiting for you."
For most practitioners, inversions like Sirsasana or the headstand are the asanas that tend to spark a strong emotional response - avoidance, fear and some dread. For Nicola Belen, an experienced prenatal teacher, practicing an inversion made her feel disoriented, ungrounded, and out of control. The change of perspective and the fear of not fully grasping that reorientation and falling as a result of it, unnerved her. What she learned was that her clinging onto the comfortable came at the expense of her own evolution:
“Now whenever I feel stuck, I just turn upside down…I am learning the art of falling. ”
She invites practitioners who feel overwhelmed in the face of a difficult pose to take it as an opportunity for self exploration, to find centeredness amid the unknown. After all, Yoga is about presenting to you the challenge of something you can’t do, and it can be as simple as sitting still and breathing more fully.
Vivienne Spanopoulos, an internationally acclaimed teacher, recalls herself taking a long time to feel comfortable with Sirsasana. Initially, it brought a little frustration and a feeling of insecurity, but over time, there was the eventual realisation that whether or not she could succeed at doing it, the achievement (or lack thereof) didn't define her:
“I don't believe I had strong feelings towards headstand. I certainly knew it challenged me and presented me with a situation that as yet I could not overcome…I remember a doctor…remarking on my blood test results and asked, ‘do you suffer from depression?’ And I answered, ‘No, not that I know of.’ And he replied, ‘well hormonally you have the profile of a depressed person.’ I went away and reflected that even if chemically I have that situation, I don't identify with it, I don't see myself that way.”
Yoga as a discipline is all about defying labels and categorization, that it is ironic how we become so easily defined by our practice, that we choose to be validated or invalidated by what we can or cannot do.
On a practical level, if we want to be able to master a posture we find disarming, then we have to break it down into small stages or steps. Like when we were toddlers, we first learned to crawl before we could walk. We practice repeatedly until at each stage we are able to sustain every progressive effort with confidence, strength and ease of breath. After a while, we will be able to develop more than just the physical capacity and gather the psychological and perhaps, spiritual resources to welcome difficulty. We would have the tools to be much more equanimous, resilient, clear and detached from our often misguided understandings and perceptions of reality.
Once we can overcome our attachments to our practice, then can we accept that we are neither better nor worse depending on whether or not we can perform a pose, and freer to enjoy the undulations that yoga (and life) bring.