Dear Yogi E,
Sometimes I want to move on to more advanced variations of the poses in class, but my yoga teacher won’t let me. I’ve been practicing for years, so I’m not going to hurt myself, but my teacher’s neurotic fear for my safety is putting the kibosh on my self expression? It’s bumming me out, what should I do?
Oppressed in Phoenix
Although I can’t speak for your teacher, it’s very likely that he isn’t solely concerned for your safety. In fact, that may not be the issue at all. The apparent conflict here might be derived from a difference in understanding regarding the purpose of asana (posture) practice.
First, it’s helpful to remember that in the west, yoga has been stretched, twisted, and bent (pun intended) to cater to the demands of the market. People love to be challenged, they love to express themselves, they love to feel like they are accomplishing something. So, it’s no surprise that this is to a large degree what the practice of asana has become in this culture: a vehicle to challenge, expression, and accomplishment.
But unfortunately, when asana is practiced in this context much of its true value and potency is left behind. For when we approach the postures with this understanding, we are simply using the practice to get what we want. This is the same ego-driven game we play all day, every day with everything in our lives, and it actually strengthens the primary source of irritation in our lives. Look closely and you’ll see: the need to get what you want is at the heart of nearly all the conflict, disappointment, anger, and frustration in your life. In this light, it’s easy to understand why getting you what you want is not what your yoga practice is designed to do.
Please don’t misunderstand, there is nothing wrong with getting what you want, but yoga practiced authentically is designed to do something much more potent. Let’s face it, most of us don’t need help being satisfied and at ease when things are going our way. In the moments when you are getting what you want, everything is puppies and butterflies. But when life throws us a curve ball—when the job goes away, the spouse walks out, or the disease prognosis is less than hopeful—it’s then that we need some help remaining at ease. And this is where your yoga practice can pay off in spades. At the risk of oversimplifying things, instead of helping you to get what you want, your yoga practice is designed to help you want what you get.
In order to do this, all asana, whether used for seated meditation or a more active yoga practice, is designed to create what I call optional discomfort. In this context, asana is supposed to be uncomfortable, difficult, and even, impossible to perfect. In fact, the job of the teacher is to deliver an experience peppered with optional discomfort, physically, mentally, and emotionally, with each episode specifically designed to serve as an opportunity to forge a new way of relating to life’s challenges and disappointments.
Here’s a secret that can supercharge your yoga practice; it’s one that even most yoga teachers are unaware of: the true power of asana derives from what you can’t do, not from what you can do. Remember, the effort is to expand our capacity for satisfaction and fulfillment when we aren’t getting our way. Thus, in your practice, the moments in which you are not getting your way are the opportunities we seek:
When the pose is less (or more) comfortable than you’d like
When the body is less flexible (or strong) than you’d like
When the class is easier (or harder) than you like
These are the places where you can really make your money with your practice—and yes, this includes when the teacher asks that you refrain from deviating from the postures as taught.
But here’s the kicker: if you don’t have the proper understanding, you can’t take advantage of this most potent aspect of your practice. Without this piece of the puzzle, optional discomfort becomes an irritation to be eliminated rather than an opportunity to use. The teacher is to be blamed, the body is to be judged, the pose is to be cursed—we’re right back in the middle of our old game: struggling to get what we want.
How many times in yoga classes have you wished for better balance, more flexibility, or a different temperature in the practice room? How many times have you impatiently hoped the pace would pick up, the poses would change, or the talking would stop. How many times have you struggled to get what you want while completely missing the real opportunity the moment offers? Each time we pray (or wish or hope) to get what we want during our practice, we are actually praying for the dissolution of the opportunity we need for meaningful transformation. To paraphrase an earlier statement: the true power of your practice derives from what you don’t like, not from what you do.
The key is to remember that the each episode of optional discomfort serves as an opportunity for you to expand your capacity to be okay with discomfort, to transform your relationship with your life in all circumstances, to learn how to find fulfillment even when you are not getting what you want (yes, it’s possible). It’s through this fostering of a relaxed ease with what’s happening in each moment that your life becomes permeated with a new level of satisfaction and empowerment. In yoga speak we call this Ishvara Pranidhana, or surrendering to the Divine.
Practice in this way and your asana practice will be transformed into much more than another strategy for slimming your tummy, lengthening your hamstrings, or improving your balance. It becomes a powerful vehicle for creating a renewed level of ease and harmony and happiness in your life, no matter what it brings.