As a former collegiate gymnast, most yoga poses have come easily to me. I can do a Handstand with ease and transition from arm balances to inversions gracefully and weightlessly. And if you look at all those photos and videos of me doing the physical practice of yoga or peer at my life from the outside, it might look like I have it made, like I don’t have a care in the world, and I never did. You might also draw the conclusion from those images that I am an “advanced yoga practitioner.”
How Do You Define “Yoga Practice”?
I started the physical practice of yoga as a way to stay in shape. But over time the work for me has become much more about the mechanics of the mind than of the body. My struggles are many, but one of my biggest is chronic anxiety. I’ve lived with it for most of my life. It is a condition that at times has left me paralyzed and almost completely nonfunctional. I tried therapy and drugs with little success. But it wasn’t until my teacher training that I saw a glimmer of hope. The very first night my teacher introduced us to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. “The first sutra is often translated as ‘Yoga is Now.’ Live in the moment fully. If you get that completely and can live it every second, well then, you’re enlightened and you can leave the course,” he said. “If you can’t do it, then you get to work, you get to practice and to learn to concentrate, and by learning to concentrate really well, you will alleviate much of your suffering.” With that, I was hooked.
I concentrated on everything I could in the moment to stop my mind from bossing me around and keep it from dragging me back to the death grip of anxiety.
And thus began my practice of paying attention and doing hard work to change my patterns. On my mat I would concentrate closely on my alignment and on my movements, inspecting every muscle’s effort and every action so I could teach others to do the things I could do. I looked for patterns in different poses so I could link them together wisely. I studied my limitations in each asana and what I thought others’ limitations would be. I paid attention to where I was lazy and where I overworked. I concentrated on everything I could in the moment to stop my mind from bossing me around and keep it from dragging me back to the death grip of anxiety.
When I Began To Really Feel Like An Advanced Yogi
I could fly through poses, linking one visually pleasing shape to the next. And to those around me, it may have looked like yoga practice. But real progress came from being present in the moment, concentrating on my alignment and on my efforts. What I began to see is that I am not my thoughts, and my thoughts are not my fault. But if I believe my thoughts and do everything they say mindlessly, that is my fault. I learned to ignore the useless stuff, the injurious stuff, the vicious stuff, the scary stuff and tried to only pay attention to and use the thoughts that would help me be kind, wise, and non-harming.
At the end of the day, the skill of concentration is what yoga really is, and that’s what will change your life.
All of that is work and it’s hard. But it reduced my anxiety tremendously. And when I found meditation and was able to dive even more deeply into my mind, it was then that my anxiety ceased to torment me. At the end of the day, the skill of concentration is what yoga really is, and that’s what will change your life. What makes you a yogi is living in the moment on and off your mat, with kindness and love for yourself and everyone around you—no matter what. That’s yoga and that takes constant practice.
About Our Expert
Southern California’s Alexandria Crow is a teacher and teacher trainer who offers vinyasa flow classes with methodical and challenging sequences that encourage mindful attention. Besides her work inside the pages of Yoga Journal as a model and writer, she’s appeared in Yoga Journal’s Fitness Challenge and Total Body Yoga DVDs, as well as Hard Tail Forever’s ad campaigns.