Last year, after demonstrating headstand in one of my yoga teacher’s classes, the girl next to me asked how long I had been practicing.
“About a year and a half,” I replied.
She gasped. “Wow! I’ve been practicing for four years and I still can’t do a headstand. It’s too scary!”
In that moment, what I felt was not compassion, but confusion.
How could someone practice for four years and still not be able to stand on their head?
Several reasons flashed through my mind. She must not practice enough, she must not have found the right teacher or she must be letting fear control her life. I couldn’t understand it. When I started, I practiced headstand every day until I had it (it took about four months, I believe).
I called it dedication and reasonable progress.
Twist with hands at heart center, then open arms, then half bind, then full bind.
Perform half moon with your hand on a block, then with your hand on the floor, then with no hands.
Grab the back foot in pigeon, then bring the foot to the elbow, then bring the foot to the head.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this view. I practice Dharma yoga, where these steps are taught as levels I, II, III, and IV. This organization makes for a practice that is not only consistently challenging, but also accessible to students of all levels.
The problem arises when we set out a schedule for ourselves. If I stretch every day, I should have full hanumanasana (splits) in about two years, I would think to myself.
Attaching myself to thoughts like these made disappointment inevitable.
Yoga teaches us to be where we are now—that in this moment, we are good enough, strong enough, flexible enough.
But it does not always show us how this works. We look to our teachers, dedicated practitioners who are likely to be able to fully express many asanas (poses), and we do not see every day of their lives that they have practiced, only where they are today.
We want to be there, want to jump forward to king pigeon and standing splits, want to wow and amaze with our physical abilities.
We may be completely immersed and in love with other areas of the practice—pranayama (breathing), meditation, an off-the-mat-yogic lifestyle—and still fall prey to this longing for the future.
We may be able to lay out this path and continue on it for a very long time. But eventually, we will get a wake up call. Maybe there will be one pose or transition that we just can’t get. Maybe our full expression will not look at all how we thought it would. Or maybe, we will get injured.
Two days ago, I was practicing after hours at my studio and went into full dhanurasana (floor bow).
I have just recently been able to flip my grip, so I was pretty excited to get into it. I’d been at what I called a “plateau” in my practice; my tight hamstrings were preventing me from doing poses I felt I was ready to do, and I was in the process of exhaustively trying to strengthen my core to access handstand. This step forward of “flipping the grip” came as a relief—“thank goodness, I’m still advancing!”—and I had been doing it all the time.
I twisted around a bit more than usual and felt a light strain in my back, so I stopped. Half an hour later, I couldn’t walk; the entire right side of my back was in pain.
Two days later I lie here in bed, unable to twist or bend or carry anything, more receptive than I ever have been to the messages of acceptance and self-love that yoga teaches us.
We talk about plateaus as if we’re not supposed to be there. We see these places in our practice as stagnation, as laziness, as temporary roadblocks that remind us to push on, to test our limits, to improve.
But what if we are meant to be there? What if the pause or rewind in our physical practice is a way for us to get to know our bodies better, to look inward, to practice self-love?
Over the past day I have essentially relearned how to walk.
I have actually learned, for the first time, what it feels like to stand correctly with a neutral spine, because anything else hurts like hell. Every movement I make is deliberate, and I am becoming increasingly aware of the organization of my body, the links that make it possible for me to feel pain in my lower back when I move my neck or my left shoulder.
Being injured sucks.
If you can learn these lessons without being injured, that is obviously preferable. Yet in my mind, this pain, these two days (and maybe more to come) of being unable to cook food and needing my boyfriend to dress me, have been a strange sort of gift (not sure my boyfriend feels the same way).
I know this because I am excited to, sometime in the next few days, get back on my mat and try child’s pose.
Sometimes, taking a step back is just as brave as taking a step forward.
Pushing our limits must come hand in hand with listening to and respecting our bodies. Yoga practice is not about shortcuts or acrobatics—we hear it all the time, but when things are going well for us, we don’t always feel the need to listen.
My wish for all yogis everywhere is to love every pose, to love every breath, to know that progress only comes with total acceptance of and immersion in the present moment.
My gratitude is that I finally understand that there was not a single thing wrong with the girl who couldn’t headstand. Not a single thing.
May all beings everywhere be happy and free.
Author: Juliana Ivey
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock
Photo: courtesy of Anna Orans