A recent Yoga Journal article on backbends (The Compassionate Backbend by Kate Tremblay) talked about the distinction between practicing yoga for the purpose of achieving picture perfect poses vs. practicing for the purpose of attaining freedom of movement. We’re all familiar with the former, but maybe we should instead be focusing on the latter.
“If you practice backbends intent upon eradicating aspects of yourself that you see as somehow ‘not measuring up,’ such as weak muscles, stiff joints, or protective insulation, you succeed only in beating yourself up. There’s no freedom on that path . .
If the discipline of yoga is to bring greater freedom, you must practice . . . in a way that accepts and accommodates your resistance—even values and honors it—while still letting you receive the intended benefits. The point of this practice is not to become someone else but to become more fully yourself.”
You can substitute any pose or other aspect of practice for “backbends” in that concept. No matter what discipline you choose to practice there is always a stumbling block – something you wish you could do better but can’t because of some perceived shortcoming. Perhaps this desire even causes you to envy someone else who is able to do whatever it is the way you wish you could do it. But, like the quote above makes clear, this is the same as wishing you were someone you’re not rather that celebrating who you are.
Those of you who have attended my classes know that I often try to describe what I hope you will feel when you’re practicing certain poses. Yoga and Pilates are both disciplines that aim to help you connect mind and body, movement and sensation, awakening body awareness. If you can feel the movement, you’re achieving the benefit. Your pose may look different from someone else’s pose, but that doesn’t make it any less beneficial. And it is the right pose for you. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t challenge yourself. But it does mean that you need to be mindful about how and when you challenge yourself.
The article talks about some of the simple stretches we do in class that feel so good. You know the ones. These may seem “especially pleasurable [since] you rarely try to reach beyond your body’s natural comfort level. You’re not trying to achieve anything in particular, just instinctively going for the relief and exhilaration”. The good news is that you can do that in any pose – that is, go for “relief and exhilaration”. But it helps to remember
“to accept only what is appropriate. You make a conscious choice not to take all you could, not to move into the fullest [pose] your body can manage, because you see value in holding back; you value the health and integrity of your body more than the [perceived] glory of a deeper pose.
This kind of restraint is so uncommon in our culture that it can feel quite unnatural. To embrace restraint, you might need to acknowledge how strongly it conflicts with the messages we regularly receive about what it means to be accomplished and successful. . . If you move into [your practice] without acknowledging [this] potential [conflict], doing your best can translate into doing your most. Not only can this lead to injury, but it can also sabotage the benefits of the practice altogether. If you want to give your [practice] your best effort . . .you have to remind yourself that success comes with taking only what you need from a pose—only what your body can appropriately use and no more.”
As I’ve said many times, what’s appropriate for your body can vary from day to day. So doing your best on any given day may be different from what it was the day before, or what it will be the day after. But if you keep practicing and do your best each day, you will get the benefits. And I say that with confidence.
An article from Yoga Basics (Yoga During Times of Change by Megan DeMatteo) takes this concept a step further by suggesting that Child’s Pose is actually an “advanced [pose] . . .because it requires that we let go into the necessary gift of self care, something not easy for many of us.” So next time you feel the need to stop during practice and give yourself a break, you can relax in Child’s Pose by reminding yourself that you are making an important contribution to your practice by executing this “advanced pose”.
A final thought from the song “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen (featured in a recent blog post by Parker Palmer):
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Let the light shine in on your practice! It is, after all your practice. You don’t need to impress anyone. When you begin to believe that, you will find the freedom that you are looking for.