May 3, 2017

We Can’t “Win” Yoga.

Wow. I was in awe when I first saw Dragonfly Pose.

I wanted to do that. Heck, I still want to do that.

But this led to a short-lived habit of pushing myself too far and straining in yoga poses.

I believed I was practicing yoga, and that pushing through the pain was the only way to become limber and strong. The spiritual and ascetic aspects never seemed to cross my mind.

I wanted to be super bendy because it looked cool. But you know what’s not cool? Hurting yourself.

There was an audible pop the last time I injured myself during yoga. Still new to the practice with less than a year of yoga under my belt, I was excited to get on the mat whenever possible. Immediate improvement was my goal. Forcing my body through pain to fully realize a pose was on the menu. Triumph over the asanas was my objective.

Then ugh—my back. Depressing. Just great. How long until I can step onto my mat again? In other words, how long before I can just suck up the pain and exercise? My back was in terrible pain, and there was nothing I could do other than start my recovery regime and nurse the trauma.

Fourteen years ago, I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease at the age of 26. Because of this, I am all-too familiar with back pain, and I’ve learned how to reduce inflammation quickly.

So, when the pain had subsided enough—not when the injury had healed—I returned to my mat.

My instructor spoke words of wisdom while I was struggling in Utthita Parsvakonasana. He instructed, “Relax in the pose, breathe, be the calm within the storm. We are not trying to ‘win’ yoga.”

And that was it right there. I smiled thinking to myself, “That’s what I’ve been doing—trying to ‘win’ yoga.”

Sometimes someone says something simple and profound that powerfully resonates within you, reverberating throughout your being. I savor these moments in life. And I savored this epiphany in my practice.

There is no “winning” or “losing” in yoga. It’s not a competition.

See that woman floating up into a Handstand, and admire her. See that guy with his heals on the ground, legs straight, posed in Downward Dog, and allow him to inspire you.

Celebrate their practices. Let go of your judgments. Stop comparing. Let go of ego.

Comparing my yoga abilities to others created a narcissism that had taken me to the dark side. I could hear my ego whispering, “Don’t listen to your body. Strain yourself. Win! Beat yoga.”

So I learned something profound that day. Yoga is more than impressive, bendy moves—it’s about our minds and our connections to our bodies. Yoga teaches us to listen and adhere to the messages our bodies are conveying.

I found an interesting article about the separation between the physical aspects of yoga and the “inner experience.” Dr. David Surrenda’s New York Times article, “The Purpose of Yoga,” talks about how there is a “split occurring between those seeking physical development versus those seeking spiritual development.” The result is a “lack of awareness and attention to inner experience” disconnecting “the practitioner from his body.”

That was me. I wasn’t listening to my body, and I paid the price.

It’s okay to practice yoga for its physical benefits. It’s okay to practice yoga for exercise and to not integrate the mental practice. That’s fine, but it’s limiting.

Several years later in my personal practice, I still can’t place my face on my thighs in a Seated Forward Bend. But, I can do a not-so-beautiful Side Crow. So I’m that much closer to Dragonfly.

I also don’t hurt myself as often anymore. I have found that the important takeaway of an injury is discerning how it happened—was it an accident or was I not listening to my body?

“Be the calm within the storm.”

I remember my teacher’s words ever time I step onto my mat. When I find myself pushing further than I should, I back off a little. I take a deep breath, turn the corners of my mouth upward, and relax into the position. I may grunt or struggle, but it’s a relaxed endeavor. I’m content with how deep I am within the postures. I have a new belief when practicing—my body will get me to my yogic destination as long as I tune into the hum of my bodily engine.

I am “winning” just by stepping onto my mat.


Author: Brent Galaway
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Editor: Leah Sugerman

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