I have been practicing asana for many years now, and as I get older and my body changes, I find it harder and harder to do the poses I once did with ease. In addition to these physical changes, my mentality has changed as well. Over the years, my focus has shifted away from the physicality of the asanas as I continue to align myself closer to the philosophy of yoga as it pertains to self-study and social justice.
One of the biggest “aha” moments in my yoga practice came to me while I was on my mat at a workshop in Tucson, Arizona. I was a budding Anusara teacher and had just received my certification from the school of Anusara Yoga. With fresh inspiration and determination, I decided to study with some of Anusara’s most recognized and highly skilled senior teachers. The training, called “Magnet for Magnificence,” was lead by some of the Anusara asana superstars of that time and billed as “a five-day immersion into the brilliance of you.” With a great marketing pitch like that, I was enchanted with the possibility of going deeper into the “brilliance of myself.”
One of the biggest “aha” moments in my yoga practice came to me while I was on my mat at a workshop in Tucson, Arizona.
I saw this as my ticket to learn more about the yoga practice, and as someone who was always chasing the elusive “more,” I was ready to dig deeper into my own consciousness through asana. The senior teachers leading the course were sure to unlock the magic of yoga for me so I could finally attain a deeper understanding of myself. Or so I thought…
The experience was indeed epic and life changing, but not in the way that I had imagined. I had dragged my family thousands of miles and across two time zones only to end up spending most of my time in tears on my mat. My asana was in no way ready for what had unfolded.
Ordinarily, being the largest and blackest person in the room doesn’t faze me. When I look back at the teachers who led the course, I should have arrived on the first day prepared for the intensity of the asana that would be taught and practiced by the rest of the attendees. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t prepared for the acrobatic nature of the asana I was expected to perform. If I had known that this was what the course was all about—that the ability to perform intensely aerobic asana was how I was supposed to gain a deeper understanding of my “brilliant” self—I would have kept my asana at home!
This was a workshop for advanced asana, taught by strong, experienced, able-bodied, and genetically privileged teachers. There wasn’t any room for those who could not perform asana in the same way. The practice had reduced me to a puddle of anything but magnificence.
I spent the first half of my first day crying either on my mat or in the bathroom. I was way out of my comfort zone and my physical ability. Some people tried to comfort me and I had an encouraging conversation with Christina Sell. I even made a few great friends and did attempt to push my own boundaries, but for the most part was a mere spectator in this “experience of magnificence.” Truthfully, though, being a spectator to that experience ended up being just fine with me. By being a mere observer of the program, I learned how to observe my own self with compassion. As a result, I ended up learning a great deal about myself during that week spent crying on my mat.
That week in Tucson taught me about compassionate self-study and being realistic with my expectations. As a student of Anusara yoga, I was taught the universal principles of alignment. Fundamentally, I learned that these principles of alignment were designed to work in every body all the time. I continued to believe in that teaching philosophy up until that five-day intensive.
That week in Tucson taught me about compassionate self-study and being realistic with my expectations.
It was then that I learned that not all bodies could adapt effortlessly into the loops and spirals of the Anusara alignment philosophy. Instead, I discovered firsthand that asanas need to be explored and refined for each individual body. I learned that there is a certain amount of genetic privilege in everyone’s body. Teachers like Darren Rhodes, for example, have a very specific body aesthetic. His limbs are beautifully proportioned to each other. This makes his asana visually stunning and accessible in a way that doesn’t work for me. When I look at all his books and videos, they are beautiful to watch, but I now understand that some of these poses are not available or even realistic for my heavier and differently proportioned body. There is no amount of yoga asana or positive self-talk that will allow my arms to be in the same proportion to my legs as in Darren Rhodes' body. My body will never look the same way during asana practice, and really, that’s okay.
When I finally returned home from that experience, I truly digested all that I had learned about myself versus the asana. I began to observe the realization that “I am different and that’s okay” as I explored my own practice and my teachings to my students. I gained an acceptance of the use of props and what my body can and can’t do. Honoring my body with its asana challenges was the key to keeping my practice and my spirit magnificent.
We must remember to tell our students it is okay if they never touch their toes in a forward fold. It is imperative that we remind our students that their unique limitations are not a reflection of their inability to live up to their full asana potential, but rather, that some poses may just not be available to their body in the same way that they are available to other bodies.
This leads to a shift in the narratives we perpetuate in the studio and on our mats. The questions we must explore become: What sensation are you feeling in these poses? Are you sitting in your discomfort? What are you learning about yourself as you adapt this pose to suit your body?
That five-day intensive was hard, and there were a lot of complicated arm balances and asana gymnastics executed by strong students and even stronger teachers. It was really great to watch people find their own space for greatness. But for me, it broke me and I felt defeated. I wanted to run away. As the week wore on, I began to realize that I could run from a class, but I couldn’t run from myself. Instead, I needed to figure out how to work with my body in an asana I wanted to experience. There were certain arm balances that I could safely explore with the assistance of props, walls, and fearless partners. Ultimately, what I learned from the experience was that accepting myself as I am is what’s really magnificent.
No principle of alignment is universal to everyone or to every body, and there are movements that we simply can’t force no matter how hard we try.
We often tell our students that if they work diligently and stop the negative self-chatter, over time the more difficult asanas will somehow magically become accessible. While this may be true occasionally, the truth is that sometimes, no matter what you do or how much asana you practice, you may never be able to achieve a certain posture. What we must come to realize is that it is okay to walk away from the postures that do not serve our body best, rather than trying to force ourselves to try something we are not ready to explore. No principle of alignment is universal to everyone or to every body, and there are movements that we simply can’t force no matter how hard we try. One size cannot possibly fit all.
In the end, I am left with the realization that the lessons I learned during that difficult time have shaped me into the person I am today. I had a unique opportunity to make some great friends and learn from some great teachers, but most importantly, I learned more about my unique self. I learned that becoming a magnet for magnificence requires honoring myself and the others who share my path. We are magnificent as we are.