Recently, while teaching forearm balance (Pincha Mayurasana) at the wall, I noticed a student fervently trying to get herself up in the air. The last time she tried to kick up into the air, she almost made it but toppled over and looked immediately defeated, embarrassed and disgusted with herself. I imagine anyone who practices yoga has been there at some point; forcing things upon the body and mind when neither is sufficiently prepared for whatever we’re trying so hard to get them to do. I know I have been there, feeling as though I had something to prove and fighting with my own body and mind in the process. But what I learned is that this is not yoga. Such internal fighting only strengthens and solidifies our negative mental processes and habits.
We have tools to know exactly where we should be in any given pose, based upon our quality of breath, our emotional state and our physical energy and strength. Paying close attention to these various factors can lead to more grace and dignity in one’s practice. It does so because when we focus on these things we are cultivating patience. We are fully accepting of where we are in the moment, not focusing ahead on where we wish to be.
In my own practice, I’ve learned that every time I step onto my mat I am cultivating habits. Creating an intention for practicing helps me cultivate wholesome habits. My goal, as a practitioner, is to always cultivate wholesome habits on the mat which will then transfer off the mat into my daily life. Whatever I practice on the mat will only strengthen what I practice off the mat. Therefore, if I am patient with myself, treating my body and mind with respect and not fighting with myself in postures, I find I am in a much better position to be patient with those around me when I’m off the mat, treating them with the same level of respect and care. On the other hand, if I practice intolerance and impatience with my body and mind, forcing my body to do things it really doesn’t want to do and being impatient and judgmental of myself when I don’t achieve success, I am only increasing the likelihood that I will be less patient and respectful of others when I’m off the mat.
So please be patient with yourself while you’re on your yoga mat. Recognize that each experience on the mat is an opportunity to train the mind, not just the body. If you set a specific intention that you will practice patience on the mat, that very intention will eventually arise in your daily life. I often think of and tell my students about Max’s story of a student who tried very hard to get himself into some difficult pose. When he finally achieved “success”, he went home to his wife to tell her all about it, exclaiming that after all this time he’d finally gotten himself into the pose. She looked at him and said something to the effect of, “That’s great, dear…but you’re still mean to me.” Clearly, this man had not been practicing yoga. He’d only been practicing impatience in postures and it did absolutely nothing to change his behavior off the mat.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen my yoga teachers tying themselves into knots and contorting their bodies in unimaginable ways. But they are two of the most kind and caring people I’ve ever met and that’s exactly why I call them my teachers. Clearly, what evolves on their mats crosses over to their everyday life and it shows. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love to see yogis and yoginis engaged in beautifully challenging postures, most of which my own body won’t allow me to do at this stage. I’m often inspired by those who have cultivated their bodies to that degree. Still, I believe yoga offers much more than body transformation and we owe it to ourselves to investigate those offerings.
Yoga can transform us on many levels. We just have to be open to the process and realize that it’s a gradual progression. In essence, yoga is a practice in patience; patiently walking the path of self-transformation.