“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new."—Dan Millman
I recently completed my very first 30-day yoga challenge. After 12 years practicing many different styles of yoga and nearly a year of teaching yoga, I took the plunge and committed to one yoga class per day for 30 days.
I’ve wanted to do a yoga challenge for quite a while now, but there were always reasons to postpone: I was starting a new project in some other area of my life, I’d begun dating someone new, I was moving, or I wasn’t feeling quite at the top of my game physically or emotionally. In the past, I’d also taken the perspective that a 30-day challenge would be just that—a difficult task, a challenge. But as my yoga practice and my mindset continued to evolve, I began to see the concept of challenge as more of an opportunity to take time to learn about myself. By reframing this yoga challenge as a chance to dedicate myself to a positive intention—in this case, to create space in my life by letting go of habits that don't move me toward better health, stronger relationships, and lasting peace—I’ve been able to see how easily I can generate energy and free up time for practice when I really want to commit to it.
As my yoga practice and my mindset continued to evolve, I began to see the concept of challenge as more of an opportunity to take time to learn about myself.
"Creating space" is a rather ambiguous phrase that gets thrown around quite a bit in the yoga world. Yoga teachers and personal growth books often speak of creating space mentally, emotionally, and physically through the practice of yoga and other healthy and self-supporting habits. But what does that actually mean?
Creating space simply means becoming more present to what is already in our lives (relationships, habits, work, etc.), and then clearing out what doesn’t leave us feeling positive, light, and at peace from one moment to the next.
Creating physical space may mean decluttering our living areas, or releasing physical tension from our muscles. Creating mental and emotional space involves becoming more aware of the thoughts and emotions that may be holding us back from being authentic or achieving our goals. It means focusing instead on the breaks between racing thoughts and on the fleeting moments of stillness that sometimes come when we find ourselves riding stressful emotional rollercoasters.
“Each person is such an infinite mystery, inexhaustible, unfathomable, that it is not possible that you can ever say, “I have known her” or “I have known him.” At the most you can say, “I have tried my best, but the mystery remains a mystery.” —Osho
Through the first 10 days or so of the challenge, I began to notice that the way I approached class reflected my current situation and emotions. On days when I felt more time pressure, I tended to move faster; I was always looking forward to the next sequence and trying to anticipate how I would feel about it. On days when I had tensions or conflict in relationships, my transitions seemed less smooth. Being able to pick up on these subtle changes as the month progressed gave me a new way to view my feelings and empowered me with the capacity to slow down, focus on my transitions, or take a rest if that was what I needed.
Yoga is a practice of exploring the person you are each day with a sense of curiosity and acceptance. It’s about getting to know yourself better byreleasing thoughts that don’t reflect reality; by building a capacity and drive to move forward and make change; and by practicing supportive, positive habits.
Yoga encourages us to give up the thoughts that don’t allow us to accept the realities of our lives. In asana practice, when we experience emotional or mental resistance to a pose and feel an urge to escape, it is often because we’re not okay with the reality of the way our bodies are in that pose. I have experienced this when I pushed myself too hard because I thought I "should" be able to do a certain asana, or when I have seen myself in the mirror and thought I "should" look different than I do.
At the beginning of class, most teachers I know will encourage students to listen to their bodies, accepting and honoring what is happening at each moment of the practice. Practicing acceptance and honesty with ourselves gives us the mind-space to take responsibility for achieving those things—both in class and in our lives off the mat.
In my everyday life, I've come to realize that my past actions were often based on what I thought might happen in the future or on a fantasy I'd created, as opposed to what was actually occurring in the situations and relationships in my life. The yoga challenge, and the daily reminder to live rooted in a more realistic frame of mind, develops the ability to make decisions from a place of awareness that allows me to let go of patterns of thinking and doing that don't serve me.
A 30-day challenge will build a lot of tapas! One of the niyamas, tapas is the cultivation of willful discipline. By practicing every day during the challenge, I nurtured my ability to focus and to develop the sense of commitment necessary to "burn away" blockages in my life.
By knowing exactly what I wanted to accomplish in my practice, the obstacles and unhealthy distractions in my life that obstructed the path toward those goals have faded into the background.
Tapas creates a clarity and drive that push us forward in working toward what we want. This is why many teachers also encourage us to set an intention for practice, because all of the energy and awareness we build during yoga shouldn't then be scattered. By knowing exactly what I wanted to accomplish in my practice, the obstacles and unhealthy distractions in my life that obstructed the path toward those goals have faded into the background.
When I am in the process of making big changes in my daily habits, or when other people around me ask for wellness tips, I practice and encourage adding more of the good instead of restricting the "bad" (which can lead to feelings of lack). For example, when I was changing my eating habits, I found that if I ate more vegetables, I had less room for sweets. Similarly, if we spend more time doing yoga, we’ll have less time for less healthy activities—like watching mindless television or going out drinking.
I have found that when I focus on increasing what I want more of in my life—in this case, yoga and the freedom it brings—I'm able to detach from other things that take my time and energy without improving the quality of my life.
My 30-day challenge was no easy task; I had some really hard, exhausting days when yoga was the last thing I wanted to do. I did more laundry than I thought possible (in order to have clean clothes available for practice each day), somehow maintained a social life, and had a couple of physical setbacks (opportunities to learn)—including a broken finger (sustained off the mat) and the most painful neckaches I’ve had in years as I worked through tension that had begun to build again in that area of my body. In the end, though, it allowed me to release a lot of thoughts I’d been hanging on to that were taking up mental, emotional, and physical space. I was able to see more clearly that some of the ideas I held about how relationships "should be" were unhealthy, and I moved forward, away from them. I was also able to recognize limiting thoughts I had about my work life that were holding me back from enjoying my job.
In the same way that I was able to shift to an expansive vision of a 30-day yoga challenge (seeing it as an opportunity for growth as opposed to a laborious task), I am also working to reframe the obstacles of life as opportunities to know myself better and live more authentically. The yoga challenge has helped me recognize when I need to take time to center and care for myself, which gives me a feeling of emotional resilience. I feel that I can more easily identify what I want—such as healthy relationships, freedom, well-being, laughter, and the ability to be fully present—and then continue to take the risks necessary to find these things. And I'm not thrown off course when strong emotions come up.
I'd love to hear about your own experiences with yoga challenges. Have you done a 30-day yoga challenge? What prompted your decision to begin the challenge and how did you feel after?