August 11, 2015

Why I am a Yoga Teacher who Can’t Touch Her Toes.


It always surprises me when I hear people grunting and breathing hard in yoga classes.

The room is filled with tension, as people strain and will their muscles to stretch further. After a while, it begins to feel like a gym class. The success is measured by the ability to push through the pain and conform the body into a picture perfect asana (yoga pose).

We pat ourselves on the back for pushing past our limits—we feel like we have achieved something because we broke a sweat. One time I even took a class where the teacher barked out asanas and forced us through the sequence like a personal trainer for a marathon run. Everyone’s face was scrunched up from discomfort and most people looked like they were lifting weights. His class is always full.

The first teaching my teacher in India gave me was that yoga is not exercise.

Coming from the West where images of fitness instructors doing perfect asanas are plastered on gym walls, it took me a while to understand what she meant. The traditional teachings of yogic philosophy have become so diluted in the West.

It’s no wonder many of us associate yoga with having superhuman flexibility and toned muscles.

When I started to learn yoga, I felt inadequate when I couldn’t make my heels meet the floor in the downward dog pose. I felt defeated when I couldn’t do the asanas. I believed I wasn’t really practicing yoga because I couldn’t touch my toes.

But what is yoga really about, and what does it feel like when we’re doing it?

Yoga is not about will power. It is not about sheer strength and it is not about getting our heart rates up. Yoga is the art of listening. It is the practice of listening intently and compassionately to ourselves.

As we turn our attention inwards, our body becomes an anchor for the present moment. If we tune into how we feel right now, we can respond to what we need.

Our bodies intuitively know when we have gone too far, when we have to stop and what feels good to us. It tries to tell us so many things every day but we have forgotten how to listen. Yoga is practicing this art—on and off the mat.

The second teaching my teacher gave us was that yoga teaches us how to relax.

While most yoga classes market themselves mostly, if not solely, on the physical rigor of the practice—traditional yogic philosophy sees asana as a mechanism to reverse the toxic effects of stress in our bodies and ultimately in our minds too.

My teacher aptly described modern life as, “One in which we are under so much pressure—even when we are sitting down.”

Our hearts are racing as if we are on a treadmill.

Yoga is about retraining the body how to relax—slowing the heart down, unclenching the jaw and dropping the shoulders.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, asana is defined as “sthira sukham asanam“—meaning a posture which is steady, stable and comfortable. To achieve this, my teacher told me that yoga only needs thirty percent effort.

By practicing yoga in a gentle and self-compassionate way, we reverse the contractions we carry in our daily lives, slow down our breathing and re-activate the parasympathetic system which heals and restores.

The temptation to be goal-orientated was—and still at times remains—a struggle for a perfectionist like me.

This meant retraining myself to think that even if my fingers couldn’t touch the floor in triangle pose—but I could comfortably use a prop and open my hips—I was practicing yoga.

What is not yoga was twisting myself into an asana until my muscles were shaking and I could feel the lactic acid burn.

So why am I a yoga teacher who isn’t ashamed of not being able to do perfect asanas?

It is because I want to teach my students not to feel like failures if they are not flexible, physically strong or capable of gravity defying poses.

Rather, I want them to use yoga as a journey towards self-acceptance. Let’s to embrace our limitations and get in touch with a willingness to fearlessly express ourselves just as we are—even if that includes not being able to touch our toes.


Relephant Read:

You Can’t be Bad at Yoga. Here’s Why.


Author: Maria Chan

Apprentice Editor: Cecilia Vinkel/Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

Photo: Flickr/Victor Tondee

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