I’m embarrassed to admit this, but when I first started yoga, I chose classes based on egoism. I have a spine injury and practice chair yoga, so to prove my toughness I took my chair into the hardest non-chair classes I could find, like “strong flow” and “fire flow.”
At first, I fooled myself into thinking that participating in such classes was changing perceptions about disabled yogis, but really I was participating in difficult classes for the wrong reasons: I got an ego boost when someone complimented me for pushing my physical limits; I was proud to be the only disabled yogi in the room. But beneath that, deep down, I felt like a fraud.
Eventually, I realized that this feeling stemmed from the fact that I had forgotten what had drawn me to yoga in the first place. My intention had always been (and still is) to have a whole-body experience. I crave the mind-body connection of yoga and the experience of feeling breath and movement in my body. I love connecting—to myself and to others—through yoga and finding a sense of community. But the fact is that my ego had dominated my inner knowing and wisdom. I wasn’t being mindful in my practice. I wasn’t feeling sensation in my body or focusing on my breath. I had lost the mind-body connection. I was going through the motions.
As a result, I started to feel the physical effects of pushing my body too far. After a difficult class, I felt weakness in my knees. Sometimes my low back throbbed, making it difficult to walk. These signs were proof that something needed to change.
After gaining awareness about the damage I was inflicting on my body and my practice, I made an empowered choice. This choice launched a deeper, more mindful internal exploration in my yoga practice. I began to listen intently to my body and accept what was revealed. Once I gave my body what it needed and let go of my ego, my joy in the practice of yoga returned. This shift in my approach also led to why I teach yoga the way that I do.
As a disabled adaptive yoga teacher, I teach classes driven by exploration. When we explore in yoga, we can find ways of more fully connecting with our bodies and inner selves and thus learn a wealth of useful information. The more we drop into our bodies and let go of extraneous factors in yoga (such as preconceived ideas about the type of yoga class we’re taking), the easier it becomes to find a more meaningful connection to ourselves and to then make smart choices based on that self-awareness.
This exploration can be accomplished in different ways. In my classes, we adopt a beginner mindset. Approaching yoga with a beginner mindset means keeping your mind nimble so that you’re open to new things and new approaches. This approach can result in a benefit as simple as discovering new ways in and out of poses that better serve our bodies, but it can also ground our entire practice by keeping us in the present so we don’t get bogged down in past successes or failures. If we maintain a beginner mindset, self-inquiry becomes easier; preconceived ideas fall away. We feel open to talk about what works and doesn’t work in our bodies and to discover through that dialogue new and better practices for ourselves. In this way, exploration keeps our practice authentic—true to each unique yogi’s individual needs.
Feeding my ego didn’t improve my yoga experience, but it taught me to pay attention to my deeper feelings and to trust my instincts. Once we trust ourselves, we know what feels best in our bodies, and listening to that instinctive understanding encourages well-informed yoga practices.
Exploration means different things to different yoga teachers and different practitioners. I invite you to explore the way you teach and the way you practice by journaling the following prompts. If we want to practice yoga our entire lives and live fully in our bodies as they change over time, exploration will be key.
1. How do you practice yoga? What is your intention in your practice? Reflect on the type of yoga classes you’re taking. Are they facilitating the type of experience you seek in yoga?
2. In what ways do you bring curiosity, openness, and exploration to your body in yoga? What does exploration look and feel like in your practice? Are you curious about and open to exploring your ego, your assumptions, and your intention in your yoga practice?
3. What does it mean to be a good yoga student? How did you come to this perspective? What would happen to your practice if you shifted your mindset or changed your perspective?