This year marks the 20th anniversary of my yoga practice. But wait, before you pull out the trumpets and ribbons: You could argue with me. You could tell me I’m fudging it, and you would be right. There was a full year early on when I hardly ever did yoga. And should I really count that first year, when I was going to restorative yoga intermittently to take naps?
But, if you include such desultory periods, my practice has now spanned twenty years. I think I have a hat that old, but I haven’t owned or experienced much else that’s lasted that long. And frankly, I’m a bit proud of myself for sticking with it, for toting this practice with me through some pretty different lives, in some pretty different places.
I’ve recently enjoyed reflecting on the changes that have occurred in my relationship to yoga over the years, as I’ve gotten to know both myself and gotten to know this practice better. I wonder if you’ll be able to relate to any of these things.
I used to expect transformation. I used to tell myself: Just a few more yoga classes and I will be catlike and graceful, like my yoga teacher, instead of being the girl who always bumps into furniture and hits her head on things! (Nope. I’m not tall at all. No excuse really.) Soon my foot will go behind my head. My hamstrings will relent and I will be able to do the splits! My kundalini will rise and I will become a genius.
These things have not happened. I think yoga has fostered, and will continue to foster, improvements in my body, mind, and life, but I no longer think it’s going to metamorphose me into a totally different creature. But I’m also starting to think that I may not need to become a totally different creature. So what if I still can’t do the splits after twenty years? My body serves me pretty well, my mind is chugging along at its notably non-genius pace, and now I go to yoga because I’d just like to keep everything working this well for as long as possible.
I just don’t see what the rush is anymore. There is so much to explore in each pose. I’d rather spend an hour’s practice on just a few asanas than move through forty or fifty really fast. This shift in energy is part of a more general pattern: My twenty-year-old self would get a EuroRail pass and try to cover 10 countries in two weeks, while my forty-year-old self would pick one country, maybe two, to visit in one trip. While slowing down may have led me to more and richer sensations in each pose, I admit that in some cases I’ve had to slow down because I’m noticing some poses carry more sensations that are less than divine (see number 3). In these cases, slowing down has given me time to build up to a pose carefully, or to consider other options.
I just don’t see what the rush is anymore. There is so much to explore in each pose.
! Those first five or ten years I honestly didn’t feel that much. Figure four? What was that supposed to do? I could do that hip stretch, but I didn’t really get it. These days I feel figure four powerfully, and a lot of poses to which I was formerly impervious have become valuable, deep experiences. I’m sure that before, I wasn’t aligned for maximum effect, and I was moving so quickly that some of the poses just rolled right off me. But I also think my no-longer-twenty-year-old self feels the effects of life—sitting, for example—in ways she didn’t used to…in other words, now I feel figure four because I need figure four.
I also feel aspects of yoga in less positive ways, as though my invincibility shield is wearing off. Spending a lot of time weight-bearing on my hands didn’t used to phase me, but now plank-style wrist extension, repeated over and over, does bother me. I used to kick up into forearm stand or side plank with a shoulder (or two!) imperfectly positioned—no big whoop. Now if I do that my shoulder will bug me for days.
I used to zone out a little in yoga class. I stopped thinking and just followed directions, as if allowing the teacher to pull my puppet strings. This compliant dream state wasn’t unpleasant, but if anyone had asked me a question during or following yoga class, I wouldn’t have been able to respond with anything more than a “huh?” But these days, I don’t “turn off” like that anymore. If you ask me a question about the pose, or life, or anything, I can answer it. I’m present. I don’t know quite why this is, or how it happened. But overall, I’m choosing to take it as a good sign.
Early in my yoga life I liked the teachers who said, in sum, “You have to do it this way.” Now I’m skeptical of those teachers. I gravitate toward those who offer suggestions rather than directives (“What if we tried it this way? Would that feel better or worse?”) and acknowledge the value of other methods. Maybe this is because my life keeps getting unfigured out and I want a teacher who, like me, is prone to bouts of uncertainty. Maybe it’s because of all the self-assured teachers I’ve seen fall off their pedestals. But I think, too, that through gradual exposure to different methods, it’s become clear to me that different things work for different people. Heck, different things work for one person! I think there are lots of different ways of doing a pose, of breathing, of visualizing, of working with an injury or an underlying condition. I don’t think there’s just one ticket, and even if there were, I don’t believe that anybody’s got it.
Note: This has been an empowering realization! If no one knows everything, I don’t feel quite so bad about all I do not know.
(Er, kind of. Maybe not.) I think it’s possible that I’m actually more judgmental. But something else happens now. When a yoga teacher tells the group, “Lengthen your cervixes” when I’m pretty sure she means “cervical spines,” I go down this wormhole where I wonder why such misstatements—the things I’m judgiest about—get my goat. Why does it matter so much to me? Why can’t I just ignore stuff like this, or chuckle inside? Is it really because I care so much about the well-being of others? (In truth, the instances of anatomical inaccuracy that bug me are often not moments where anyone is in danger…) Or is it because I care a lot about accuracy, and I think everyone else in the world ought to care about exactly the same thing I care about? Why should I expect my priorities to be the same as everyone else’s?
My point is, instead of only getting huffy, I’m questioning the roots of my huffiness, which seems like progress.
When I was first practicing, I think I didn’t know myself well enough to appreciate when something seemed like a bad idea. So I tried a lot of different things and occasionally hurt myself. And then, when I did mature enough to have misgivings about certain things, there were still years when I was hesitant to say “no” when a teacher gave the class a directive. Let my partner press his heels into my neck in forearm stand? Sure. Kick up in the middle of the room and catch each other by the ankles? Alrighty. Now I will forego some of these adventures. I’ve got my answer prepared: I’m okay. I’ll sit this one out. Sometimes, I can say, I tried that before, and it didn’t work for me. Sometimes I just take a bathroom break.
When I was first practicing, I think I didn’t know myself well enough to appreciate when something seemed like a bad idea. So I tried a lot of different things and occasionally hurt myself.
Just as I won’t pretend that every yoga pose is a good idea for me, I no longer believe I need to believe every piece of dogma that falls under the yoga umbrella. I realize now that I used to feel some discomfort trying to believe in things that I didn’t really think were, well, possible. It has been a huge relief to me to shed my attempt to believe in some esoterica—from the square footage of my aura to the exact number of repetitions of a movement that will lead to aura enhancement. I would rather appreciate such teachings historically, or interpret them nonliterally, as myths with messages.
This does not mean I love yoga less; it just means I have come to trust my viveka, my power of discernment, my ability to tell the real from the unreal.
I remember how strange the experience of going to a yoga studio and taking a yoga class used to be. I didn’t know where to put my shoes, what a bolster was or where to get one. Phrases like “frontal hip bones” and “smiling collarbones” may as well have been Sanskrit to me. And the infinity of poses seemed overwhelming. But now any yoga studio is familiar to me, even if I haven’t been there before: There will be a place to place my shoes and get my props, and there will be a bright, clean, big space that will be mine for a while. There will be teachers using a now-decipherable vocabulary. When I’ve traveled, I’ve appreciated having a yoga studio as a kind of mooring.
Many poses, too, are as familiar as old friends, and I’ve noticed that even the ones I haven’t done before seem familiar: the ungraspable multitude of poses having resolved themselves into a few pose families. When I now do a pose, it reminds me of another pose, so I always have a point of reference. I am never far from home.
I am not practicing as often as I used to. But I see yoga in other things—like the walk I take with my dog. I can sometimes let that walk be my yoga for the day, and I don’t stress out about not being able to make it to class or undertake a lengthy, official practice. As I walk, I keep some yoga-awareness with me. I notice how my pelvis is moving, how my shoulders are moving in relation to my pelvis, the arc of my arms, and how my feet are pressing off the ground. I unfurrow my forehead. And I try to notice, now and again, how good it feels to breathe.
I’d be curious to know how your practice has changed, or how you’ve changed in relation to your practice! Please feel free to share your thoughts below.