Unlike most other forms of “exercise", yoga offers us the opportunity to practice for our whole lives, in almost any life circumstance. We can go to the same studio, even the same teacher for years and within that time our practice can evolve so much so that week-to-week it’s practically unrecognizable. The problem the average practitioner faces is that they treat yoga like any other form of physical activity, even when they know, either consciously or somehow more intuitively, that it’s different. They might even love it more because it’s different and yet without the awareness of how to harness what can only be referred to as its utter and total magic they keep showing up like they’re at bootcamp, trying to eek one thing out of it: the sweat--the feeling as they walk out of class that offers them permission to pat themselves on the back and maybe order fries instead of a salad with their burger today. (Hi! That’s me. I’m speaking from first-hand-experience, not from atop my high horse.) But the problem with bootcamp is that it’s not sustainable (I’ve been to bootcamp exactly twice. And not consecutively. And honestly that I went a second time was an actual miracle and it’s possible I somehow altered the space-time continuum by behaving so out of bounds of what could have been reasonably expected).
For years, that’s what yoga was to me. I did (like most of my clients and fellow practitioners) know it was different because it made me feel better than other workouts, and because it was my first foray into intention-setting (which turned out to be my gateway drug into all the best things that I’ve ever done). I went to get in my workout. To burn some calories. To feel like I was doing something to control my weight. But treating it like this led to what all other forms of exercise had in my life: burn-out. Because 1) on some level I dreaded going because it was really hard (like light-headed, can’t-breathe-hard) every time; because 2) it was the same GD thing every time; because 4) my practice wasn’t progressing anymore--I was learning nothing new; and because 3) I was injured because I was doing things my body wasn’t ready for and in the worst cases, things my body actively asked me not to do.
The absolute most mindblowingly awesome gift that yoga offers is that there is no limit to what it can teach you. To where it can take you. To how it can transform you. Because learning yoga is learning you and you are limitless. You are apart of this limitless, constantly expanding, literally infinite universe and so you are all those things, too. If you let it, yoga can show you this is true.
But the only way to learn is to keep showing up. And the only way you’re going to keep showing up is if you fall in love with your practice. Yoga reels us in with the hot bodies, pretty outfits and crazy instagram backbends but to sustain it you need more. You have to fall in love with your practice. If you don’t, it’s like committing to spending the rest of your life with that super hot Tinder date whose ignorance and/or casual misogyny you conveniently missed in your lead-up to the date because he was the kind of hot that makes you want to cry (yes, more #firsthandexperience here) and then being surprised when it doesn’t work out.
Falling in love is different for everyone but I’ve compiled a list of what works for me and what I see work for my yoga friends and clients.
- Check your ego at the door. Unfortunately, it’s gonna be really hard to do any of the rest of the things on the list if we can’t manage this one first. Fortunately, I think this might be easier to start doing than you think. A simple intention at the beginning of your practice might be all you need. Make it your intention in each class for a month. Often times we let our ego guide us because we aren’t conscious that that’s what we’re doing. For me at least, sometimes I just need to pause and ask, “am I doing this for my ego or am I doing this because it’s right for me and my body and my practice right now?” And then usually I remember that I don’t care if the guy next to me knows if I can do eight-angle pose or notices how many chatarungas I’ve skipped. Maybe tape a little reminder to the top of your mat (maybe in code if you don’t want your fellow yogis to see--though obviously I’d rather your fellow yogis saw it and were inspired) so you can see it throughout your practice.
- Enjoy it. This one is the most important part of falling in love with your practice. It’s also the easiest and the one most people don’t do. If doing a fortieth chatarunga is going to make you hate the world and yourself and your fellow yogis and especially the evil yoga teacher making you do it, I would strongly suggest passing it up. If today enjoying your yoga practice means taking a child’s pose every ten breaths, I think you should do that. If it means doing three extra push-ups before every chatarunga, knock yourself out!!! This is especially important in the beginning of your yoga journey OR if you’re going through a time in your life when everything else seems really hard. Make coming to yoga the thing that feels like the treat in your day. Why does anyone come to yoga or to the gym for that matter? To feel better, right? No harm was ever done by being kind and gentle to your body and your mind. If you have a lot of things in your life that feel like have-to’s, make yoga a get-to.
- USE THE PROPS. Right now, I personally am at a time in my practice where I’m absolutely obsessed with props. Frankly, I don’t need them. I have short legs and a flexible body and I can’t think of a pose where I need props but omg I love them. Props are incredible tools no matter what stage of your yoga practice you’re in. For me right now, they give me a little thrill. It feels so luxurious to put props under my elbows in a low lunge rather than staying up on my wrists. I feel new sensations and openings in my shoulders when I use a strap to bind my hands in humble warrior or a forward fold. For new practitioners--or those whose body structures are such that they simply can’t find safe and proper alignment without props--blocks, straps and blankets offer the chance to feel what these postures are designed to do. And it’s going to be harder to enjoy (see point 2!) your practice as much if you’re straining or struggling through every pose. All bodies are shaped differently. The length of your hamstrings has aboslutely no bearing on what kind of a human you are so check your ego (see point 1!) and use the props! For more seasoned practitioners, incorporating props into your practice offers you the chance to experience the pose a little differently than you normally do. In parivritta trikonoasa, for instance, a flexible, strong, long-time practitioner can do this pose without a block, but perhaps with a block you get a deeper twist through a different part of the spine! The physical practice of yoga was designed to move energy in the body--not somehow lead us to enlightenment by being able to touch our toes. Sometimes with the use of a prop, even the most flexible bodies can move energy in a different way. Similarly, if you have always since the dawn of time used props in exactly the same way, my suggestion is to try ditching them once (as long as it’s not at the expense of safety *dorky four-eyes emoji*) and see what happens.
- Trust yourself & listen to your body. If you’ve ever been to one of my classes you’ve undoubtedly heard me say something like “let the breath and the body lead”; “get the mind out of the way”; “your brain doesn’t know how to do yoga, but your body does.” These cues all come from one strongly held belief: your body knows what you need better than I do. And for that matter, better than your own conscious mind probably does. The conscious mind often wants us to push past the pain, or copy your neighbor, or follow every direction perfectly. Sometimes your instructor is going to cue something that is not right for you. For example, I personally do not sustain heat in my body for very long, and it takes a while for it to build up. Often after a warm up, or at the end of the class, the instructor will cue open-mouth exhales. I noticed after a while that there are certain times in my practice when open-mouth exhales do not feel good to me--likely because they release heat and unless I’m over-heated, it actually tends to be counter-productive. So I stopped doing it. Tah-dah! The body told me not to. Other examples I can think of: sometimes I take svasana in fetal position (this isn’t something I recommend doing all the time, but sometimes it’s what the body calls for), sometimes I stay a little longer on one my left side of half-pigeon, sometimes when I need a break in the middle of class I take a seat instead of child's pose. You don’t need to know why the body is telling you something, but to quiet the mind enough to hear your body when it speaks is a skill that extends far beyond your mat.
- Get curious. This is my favorite one. And it really encompasses everything above (i.e. get curious about props, get curious about what the body is trying to tell you, get curious about whether or not it’s your ego talking) but it’s a guiding principle for me in my life and my yoga practice. The first teacher I ever heard talk about it was my dear friend and mentor of all things yoga & biz, Laura Munkholm. She said it years ago in a class I took from her and I have not let it go since. It is the advice I offer friends and family in almost every scenario presented to me on and off the mat. Get. Curious. Get curious about you. Get curious about your body. Get curious about yoga. What is it like to lift my leg a little higher? What is it like to breathe a little deeper? What is it like to not drink water during class? What is it like to take a kundalini class? A workshop? Remind yourself of your limitless-ness and question every story you have about you. Stories like “I can’t meditate.” Or “I could never do a handstand.” Or “I would be a terrible yoga teacher.” “I’m just a really anxious person.” “I hate bridge pose.” “I can’t afford that workshop.” I’m not saying you’re wrong about any of those things (though, you probably are). I’m just saying get curious. Explore that bod. That mind. That feeling. Pretend for a minute. Offer yourself a moment of freedom from the story and see what happens. This can be as simple as staying still in happy baby or as big and exciting as finally signing up for that yoga teacher training.
These are the ways I’ve fallen in love with yoga, and the way I sustain that long, beautiful relationship. To be honest, I’ve never fallen in love with another human. And I certainly have never sustained a romantic relationship more than a few months. But I do love to stretch a metaphor until it’s practically see-through. So as I reflect on my practice and my long love-affair with yoga I suspect that falling in love with a person and sustaining it involve a lot of the same principles: checking the ego, being open to growth and change, using support when you need it, finding someone who will grow with you. So I suppose, in conclusion, I’ll give up those hot, vapid, vague-misogynists and even if I have to wait a lot longer, I’m gonna hold out for a man who loves me like yoga does.