Unexpected Lessons Learned From Practicing Yoga
An intrapersonal classroom on your mat
I didn’t expect to gain any sort of wisdom when I began practicing yoga 9 years ago.
I started for the way it made my body feel and the mental calm and clarity I experienced afterwards. Over time it evolved to become a versatile and invaluable support to return to. The more I practiced, the more yoga had a holistic effect, integrating into my perception and experience.
While from an outer perspective a yoga class might seem only physically focused, it has the potential to tap us into deeper layers of our experience.
In this practice we are continually asked to come back to our internal perception of what’s going on on the exterior. How are we breathing? How does the mind respond when we’re in a stationery pose, like half pigeon? What story are we telling ourselves about the instructor? From what intention inside ourselves are we moving? And then of course, experiencing the complicated fun of watching what comes up sitting face to face with ourselves and our minds in meditation.
While our bodies learn through movement, others parts of us are also learning, perhaps noticing and then breaking free from unhelpful patterns, changing the way we’re thinking and speaking, or making choices that are more in alignment with our values.
As we change day to day and continue to peel back layers of self knowledge through yoga, we see that there are infinite insights to be gained and that there’s always more to learn, sometimes unexpectedly, when we show up on our mats.
TRUST YOURSELF BUT BE OPEN TO CHANGE
I reached a plateau in my yoga practice after about 5 years of being a regular practitioner. I felt like I wasn’t getting any more flexible or able to do more advanced poses. I was doing a similar practice, at a similar pace, with a similar style, for years.
It was frustrating because I wanted to feel more of a forward moving momentum rather than the stagnancy and monotony I was experiencing. Part of the cause of this situation was that I was very comfortable in my practice, which made it increasingly harder to switch things up. I realized I was subconsciously resistant to teachings that went at a faster pace or offered the more advanced poses because it was beyond my comfort zone and also beyond my mindset of what I thought was possible.
You know better than anyone what is best for you. Always check back in with yourself to notice what comes up for you, how you feel, what works for you, what doesn’t. But be aware of your familiarity stopping you from exploring new and different things.
Becoming a teacher in 2016 definitely played a huge role in my longing and drive to move forward in my practice but ultimately what changed was my mindset.
To move into new territory I had to be open to doing new things differently in ways that my body was unfamiliar with. My body was learning through movement. I had to trust the process in doing things that were unexplored thus far in my experience.
At first when I would do a faster flow or focus more on conditioning or move at a more fluid rhythm, I would interpret that as a disconnection from my “actual” practice. But really what was happening is that I was exploring different shades of my practice. And in doing so things, got much more interesting.
This is also a wonderful example of how we tend to approach other things in life. We might not fully know or understand something so our minds approach it with caution or even process it as threat. It’s an instinctual protective response that isn’t always necessary.
As you continue practicing, perhaps notice where resistance comes up for you, and observe if it’s helpful or if it’s just unfamiliar to you.
With an open and curious mindset, I continue to surprise myself on my mat; every time I practice is different. I try new things even if I think they’re impossible, I keep an open mind about different ways of practicing, and importantly I stay tuned into what would serve me best, backing off when I need to or inviting more of a challenge or something different altogether.
YOU’RE ALLOWED TO GIVE LESS THAN 100%
In and of itself, the yoga practice is always changing. We transition from pose to pose, letting go of one pose in order to do another, even if it feels super comfortable or perhaps incomplete.
We also show up on our mats different every time we practice. Maybe one day we feel super tight or low energy and another day we are surprising ourselves by kicking up into handstand for the first time.
If we are arriving for our practice every time with the intention of doing 100% of the poses, the deepest stretch possible, using every ounce of our energy and not leaving a pose until it feels perfect, the practice might end up feeling restrictive, discouraging, limited, even frustrating, and not as nourishing as it could be.
Times when I’ve showed up on my mat when I was working with about 60% of my ability, due usually to injury or sickness, were some of the most interesting, insightful, and easeful practices that I’ve experienced.
I’ve heard a lot of people expressing hesitancy to practice yoga because they think they’re not flexible enough. Listen, if only very flexible people were welcomed to practice yoga, we would have way less practitioners getting on their mats. The point isn’t to achieve perfection, it’s to show up as you are, observe yourself and your responses, and choose to do what would serve you best at that moment. It’s you and you practicing, not you vs. the rest of the students in class.
The way you show up on your mat tends to reflect the way you show up in other parts of your life. You might gain some insight on the way you approach things off of the mat as well.
Notice how you’re showing up to class and cut yourself some slack if you’re not feeling able to give 100% effort all the time. Be patient, stay curious, and keep showing up again and again just as you are.
GET INSPIRED, NOT DISCOURAGED
It’s common, especially as a beginning practitioner, to be in a yoga class and look around the room at the other students. Someone might be catching your attention by taking a pose to a more advanced level or maybe they just seem to move seamlessly and effortlessly through the poses and you wonder why it’s looking so easy for them.
While this is natural response, it might be doing more to take us out of our own experience rather than connect to it more deeply.
Each of us will also evolve to have a different type of practice. We have different limitations and abilities within our bodies; what feels like a great stretch for one person might be agony for someone else, and we might also be developing a practice to serve us in different ways. For example, practicing hand balances and power vinyasa flows might work really well for one student while someone else is better served from doing a more restorative or slow flow practice. That can also change even just for an individual depending on the day, how we feel, what we’ve eaten, if we practice a different form of physical movement, etc, etc.
If you’re just starting your practice and the group setting is becoming too distracting, you can also consider taking a few private yoga sessions in order to establish your body’s familiarity with the poses. I’ve worked with clients who felt they couldn’t self-connect in a group class setting because they found themselves just trying to keep up with the pace of the flow. In a personal practice, you’ll have a chance to focus on just you practicing, and feel more grounded in your experience on the mat.
When you notice a comparison to someone else starting to stir in you, try to tap into what it is about their practice that you’re admiring and see if you can invite in more of an energy of inspiration so that you can instead see if it might be offering something new and interesting to explore within your own practice. Use it as a chance to self- inquire. Let others inspire you, not dispirit your intentions.
Natalie Mazur is a bilingual (English/Spanish) yoga instructor based in San Diego, California. She teaches private clients in their homes and offers weekly group classes. Natalie has nine years of study and teaching experience combined, and has taught in the U.S. and internationally.
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