Yoga Isn’t About Touching Your Toes – It’s About What You Learn On The Way Down

There’s a common misconception that you have to be flexible to practice yoga.  This couldn’t be further from the truth. While increased flexibility is one of the many side-benefits of practicing yoga, it’s certainly not a prerequisite or even the goal.

How flexible you are is pretty much irrelevant and of little interest. The heavens don’t open when your pelvis touches the ground in full hanumansana , there’s no spontaneous self-realization when you finally master that arm-balance that’s been your nemesis since you began practice. Touching your toes isn’t the goal. Standing on your hands isn’t the goal. The goal is creating a space to see yourself as you are. The fruits of the practice are in the practice itself. Our yoga practice reflects our life and as with life it’s all about the journey, not the destination.

 

Yoga poses aren’t about the poses

Yoga poses reflect the diverse situations we encounter in life. Some we like, some not so much. Some are pleasant and come easily to us. Others appear to defy physics and/or feel like they’ve been sent to destroy us personally.

But yoga poses aren’t really about the poses at all. Each posture is like a mirror within which we can see our selves and our conditioned reactivity more clearly.

They bring the out-dated beliefs, assumptions and thoughts that are imprinted in our mind (samskaras) up to the surface for evaluation. Are we going to continue to be slaves to these out-dated beliefs and habits that drive our reactivity? Or are we going to transmute them through the light of our awareness so that we’re consciously serving our highest potential? This is the alchemy of yoga, like turning base metals into gold; we raise our consciousness from a base level of reactivity to increasingly finer levels of responsiveness.

The space we create in our practice affords us the opportunity to intercept reactivity and practice instead skilfully responding in a way that optimally serves the situation.

So forget whether the shape you’re making looks like the magazine covers. Guide your awareness internally instead. What’s going on inside? How are you responding? Do you actively resist any discomfort? Do you try to wriggle away and avoid anything that isn’t pleasant? Do you make it ten times worse through a barrage of mental drama? How does your ego respond to all this? Can you breathe and cultivate and maintain a mental equanimity regardless of which pose you’re in? Can you stay connected to your breath and the ease that’s behind each moment? Or do you tense up, hold your breath and try to blast through? Are you courageously leaning into the resistance you encounter in order to explore your growing edges like a veritable adventurer or are you mentally checking out? Fleeing the scene? And can you notice ALL of this without judgement??

 

Our practice reflects our lives

Our practice reflects our life, and our life reflects our practice. How we respond to what arises on our mat is also how we respond to what arises in our lives. At first we simply notice our own reactivity, our patterns and tendencies and how these manifest. Then, in the space created within our practice, we intercept the reactivity and explore responding consciously instead. Can we maintain a steady breath, an equanimous mind and an open heart (and maybe even a smile!) even in our most challenging poses? Can we stay connected to the ease that’s behind each moment through the easy and the hard, the comfortable and uncomfortable? This consistency that we develop, this ability to stay steady, conscious and responsive, whatever arises, on and off the mat, is the promise of the practice. And sure, you’ll probably end up able to touch your toes as well.

Our practice truly reflects our life. How we offer ourselves to our practice reflects how we offer ourselves to our lives. Next time you step on your mat, notice how you approach your practice. Are you offering your full attention to your practice or is your mind elsewhere? Are you approaching it with a sense of reverence, or mechanically as though it were another item on your ‘to do’ list? Are you fully experiencing and learning what each posture has to offer or is your mind already on ‘the next thing’? Are you enjoying the process or are you waiting to arrive someplace before you permit yourself joy? If you can’t be present to yourself on the mat chances are you’re not present to your life. If you can’t find joy in the moment on the mat chances are you’re not finding joy in the moment in your life.

Our practice reflects our life; and our life reflects our practice.

Our time on the mat gives us the opportunity to change our relationship to ourselves and to our lives. When we dive deeply into our practice we create space, in our mind and in our body, and within that space we presence ourselves as we re. We observe the sensations and thoughts that pass through and decide consciously, whether we want to be unconscious slaves to each transitory thought and sensation or skilful masters of our lives. As we refine our practice we refine our relationship to life.

Some questions for exploration as you practice:

  • Am I able to bear witness to my strengths and weaknesses, without judgement? Or am I entertaining thoughts of ‘not good enough’, ‘not strong enough’, ‘not flexible enough’?
  • How do I approach my practice? Is it with a sense of reverence or as another thing on my ‘to do’ list?
  • Am I willing to be present for myself?
  • How am I offering my efforts and energy to my practice? Am I blasting through and depleting myself or am I consciously emanating a consistent and steady energy?
  • Am I fully present to this moment or has my mind already wandered to ‘the next thing?’
  • Am I opening to the process and getting curious about what I might learn about myself or am I comparing myself to others?
  • What unexamined thoughts, beliefs, assumptions are colouring my experience of this moment?
  • Am I connected to my full breath and the ease behind each moment? Or am I holding my breath and creating tension?
  • Am I creating space internally with my breath or am I sacrificing space to push deeper into a posture?

Whatever answers you find to these questions while practising yoga, remember, these aren’t limited to your yoga practice, this is about your relationship to yourself and your orientation to life.

Yoga is for anyone who’s willing to dive beneath the surface of mundane existence and experience the truth of their being. Whatever story is preventing you from diving in (I’m not flexible, strong, young, skinny [insert thought here] enough please take note, that’s just a samskara, an old story you tell yourself to stay small. Don’t play small. You’re magnificent beyond measure.

Namaste

Author: Sam Vale Noya

Yoga instructor currently living and teaching in Reading, UK.