“Work within your capacity and focus on your own experience rather than someone else’s,” yoga teachers advise. “Yoga is an opportunity to grow by centering awareness within yourself.” This advice lies at the heart of yoga, but bringing it to life is not easy. Many of us have a well-rehearsed self-critical streak even though we may think we have overcome it. And when it comes to competitiveness, in the presence of a roomful of high achievers, who can keep from looking around to see how the others are doing? We can see such challenges to the centering process when we observe what we are actually saying to ourselves in the classroom.
Yoga is an opportunity to grow by centering awareness within yourself.
In the middle of a posture sequence, for example, an inner voice may monitor your progress (“You’re nowhere close to where you should be!”). As the postures become more difficult and the heat in the room rises, the competitive edge is not dulled even if you have told it to vanish (“If you want to keep up, step it up!”). And if a critical voice from the past still lingers in your mind, even the most gentle in-class correction can echo it with a vengeance (“Your posture is horrible!”). In other words, after a short hiatus, self-critical voices still find their way back into our psyche. Often, they have not gone away in the first place.
So just how do we make yoga that oasis of safety and self-confidence that it is intended to be? How are old self-critical voices quieted so that a teaching can emerge? And how are healthy changes in attitude truly integrated rather than merely tolerated as temporary accessories to yoga practice?
One of the realities of yoga training is that it places students in a number of situations that can trigger self-critical reactions or feelings of competitiveness. In virtually every yoga class, for example, there is a slender woman who seems as flexible as the teacher, if not more so. (“What is she doing in the class? And what are you doing here, if she is here?”)
Performance anxiety is not simply the result of interactions between students. The presence of the teacher is also a challenge. Teachers see the way you collapse in your hips, round your lower back, and show strain in the muscles of your face. The special attention and corrections they give you must be a sign of their frustration with you.
Yoga also involves understanding terms that are obscure: Purusha. Prakriti. Pranayama. You think you should be able to grasp these concepts more quickly—much more quickly than you do. But, of course, you have never been very good at languages and that weakness is likely to make it impossible for you to understand yoga at all, since most of yoga is in Sanskrit.
And then there are the pictures in the yoga manual. You don’t look like them yet, and it’s been months since you started practicing. No one has exactly told you how long it takes to become good at yoga, but you’re beginning to think that you may have to take some sort of remedial course because you don’t seem to be improving very fast. Probably some people are just natural at yoga, you think, and others, like you, are not.
Finally, you know that meditation is an important part of yoga. Anyway that is what you heard, although your teacher doesn’t seem to say much about it. But then that might be good since you haven’t been able to still your mind yet and the woman next to you in class claims that she has been stilling her mind for a long time—since before she started coming to class, she says. So you think that perhaps there might be something wrong with your mind.
None of these reactions are thoughtful responses to experience. They are automatic reactions that are triggered by events, and in this respect, a trigger is a kind of goad. It provokes a latent sensitivity, insecurity, or mental association into making an appearance. And once the reaction to the trigger starts, it goes on to garner a sizable amount of energy.
The photograph of a model performing a yoga posture, for example, may automatically suggest to you that you “should” look like that model. It’s a reaction that is hard to set aside, for most of us have spent months or even years “doing the picture.” We’ve huffed and puffed and hoped for a miracle.
In the course of our efforts we’ve probably missed a much more engaging process that might have taken place if we had used the pose to get in touch with ourselves. Merely “doing the picture” takes us out of the present moment and into our imagination. Ultimately, the outcome of that effort is just another picture, an imaginary calendar shot for some future month, starring (but not changing) us.
The first step in undoing automatic reactions like these is to become aware of them. If you think that yoga, after all, follows the principle “You Ought to Get Aware,” you will need to catch sight of your reactions. And this means developing a feel for their presence in your mind. Here is a short list of clues that tells you an automatic reaction is taking place. Are you…?
- driven (but not really enthusiastic)
- angry or blameful (while doing your pose)
- absentmindedly going through the motions of practice without feeling what is actually going on
- labeling yourself or others (“stiff, rigid, inept, weak”)
- resisting corrections
- conceptualizing how things “should” be (and then berating yourself or others for not being there)
- dwelling in the past or future instead of the current moment
Any of these signals are likely to indicate that you are reacting, not responding, to experience.
One of the problems with identifying automatic habit patterns is that, once identified, they are so easily used as triggers for further self-condemnation. For example, having already been self-labeled as “stiff,” we next tell ourselves that we should never have enrolled in yoga in the first place. And in the middle of a meditation that has gone on too long, we blame ourselves for our frustration. In the ensuing confusion we consider quitting altogether.
One of the problems with identifying automatic habit patterns is that, once identified, they are so easily used as triggers for further self-condemnation.
A much better strategy for dealing with a toxic eruption is to be with it quietly. Despite the fact that it may appear that every human being within five miles can see right through you at the moment, the truth is that only you are really aware of the reaction you are experiencing. Quietly being with a reaction (a very good time to make use of those yogic breathing lessons) will begin the process of changing it. Your job is simply not to “wiggle.”
What will happen? It’s hard to say for sure. Emotions may flood for a while. That is, your ears may turn pink, your eyes glaze over, or your mind become a little mushy. And despite your best intention, you may find yourself acting out your reaction.
But by quietly being with the reaction, over time, it will change. You will see it more clearly, and this will give you confidence. Instead of judging it negatively, you will find room to accept the reaction as an aspect of yourself that needs your attention. And you will gradually find energy to step out of the reaction and return to the flow of events as they are.
The Plan in Action
Suppose the normally flexible you has moved into a lateral standing bend (parshvottanasana). As you initiate the pose on the right side, your teacher instructs the class to draw the left hip forward and the right hip back. She approaches you and with her fingertips she indicates the directions by touching your hips. Then she moves off to another student.
You have never felt the pose quite like this before. Deep beneath the gluteal muscle there is a stretch that takes your breath away. You immediately pull up a bit to avoid it, while you look around to see if anyone else has seen you move or is experiencing the same problem. You can’t tell. You see your right leg, but now it is far below you and not likely to come closer. You are stuck where you are. In order to lower yourself to where you “belong,” you rotate the pelvis to the left, making it much more comfortable to bend forward over the right leg. You are not sure whether this is okay, but so far no one has said anything. Something about disliking standing poses flashes through your mind. It’s then that you realize you are in the midst of a reaction.
This reaction has to do with your self-image, with goals you have created in your imagination about lowering your forehead to your leg, and with a very real sense of discomfort deep in your buttock. So wisely, you go to your breathing and begin to quiet your mind, although it continues to blather that the instructions are wrong and (simultaneously) that you have a defective buttock. As time passes, you see that there is actually a good deal more to this pose than you had realized. You’ll need to think about it more carefully later, but you are in the stretch now. You must decide what to do.
Trying to stay in the moment, you explore the discomfort in your buttock by moving the hip back and forth. This makes you look as if you are engaged and you feel a bit better about the image you are conveying. However, your overconcern about “looking good” doesn’t seem quite right either. You close your eyes to reduce your sensitivity to those around you. Now it’s just you and your body. “Is this a muscle, or a joint, or what?” you wonder, filing the question away for later. You find a place to hold the pose that feels like a good compromise between looking good and benefiting from the pose. You recognize that this sort of compromise may not be the ultimate, but you need to maintain some self-respect for now. Emerging from the pose you feel emotionally tested.
Moving to the other side, you are relieved by your teacher’s comment that this hip alignment makes the posture more challenging. You recognize that avoiding the new alignment will only create a complex of fearful emotions. So you approach the pose with a much more balanced sense of what you are trying to accomplish. Squaring your hips, you extend out over the leg and begin to examine the stretch more carefully. This time there are no compromises. You’re back to yourself again—but it is a slightly new and improved version.
Bringing Practice Home
The process of finding ourselves in the midst of yoga practice is often challenging. It depends both on our knowledge of the practices and an inner freedom to see ourselves as we are. Knowledge of the practices—anchoring a posture in the body, mastering the mechanics of a pranayama practice, or learning to sit with the whole body/mind—is an important first step. But if we do not innocently and honestly see ourselves in the practice, the job is not complete.
There is no better feeling than that of coming home to the self that we are. Once we’re there, yoga begins fresh again.
Perhaps the greatest obstacles to seeing ourselves are the automatic defenses and habit patterns that rob inner clarity. Seeing the posture through a defensive mind is like seeing it in a curved mirror—strange and distorted. When our defenses are quieted, we will often find that we are not so advanced or accomplished in our practice as we would wish. But there is no better feeling than that of coming home to the self that we are. Once we’re there, yoga begins fresh again.