On a hot day last summer, I was teaching in an old brewery turned yoga studio in Berlin, Germany. It was sweltering outside, and there were no fans or air conditioning in the building, so we opened all the tiny windows that lined the walls. As I settled in to teach to a packed room, we heard a steady, loud hammering on the old roof right next door. It wasn’t the kind of noisy machinery you’d hear in a big city like New York; it was just a couple of guys on the roof, pounding away all morning.
As you can imagine, the room wasn’t exactly feeling settled. While it would have been nice if those workers stopped banging, that isn’t how life works, is it? It’s hard to get everything lined up just right all the time—everything arranged just the way we like it so that we can finally be relaxed and content.
For years, I’ve listened to students explain why they can’t do certain poses. The reasons are always essentially the same: My core is too weak, my hips are too tight … you get the point. The undertone is always hope that once the obstacle goes away, something better will take its place. Of course, when that better thing happens, there will be another elusive obstacle that is hypothetically making something else unattainable, and so on. The result? We end up full of craving and dissatisfaction rather than joy.
Yes, your yoga practice does offer adjustments for refining your experience and making you feel a bit more comfy. For example, if you’re feeling cold, practice Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath); if you’re hot, try Shitali (cooling) Pranayama instead. There are various modalities available to us, designed as yogic course corrections, so to speak. Yet, in the end, course correcting is not what practice is all about. Yoga is not an aspirin. It’s not about making things fit us so that we can feel better. In fact, when we approach yoga that way, we actually create our own roller coaster. Oooh, I’m too cold; I’m too hot; my arms are too short; it’s too noisy in here. We are always measuring. And all too frequently, nothing is just right.
So then, what is our practice about? It’s about getting familiar—with ourselves, our minds, and our habits, including all the ways we habitually create our own discontent. Rather than trying to make ourselves more comfortable—by adding props, or wishing the hammering noise would stop or the weather were different—what if we tried to expand our comfort zones? I believe the first step toward doing this is recognizing how we create our own discomfort.
Asana is a great method for this recognition, because a lot of feelings—both physical and emotional—come up when we move our bodies. When we take interest in this idea, we can begin to get familiar with the difference between feelings and thoughts. Thoughts seduce us, tempting us to get hooked on story lines about feelings and emotions that have already changed and dissolved. The hammering outside these windows is annoying, distracting, and threatens to ruin this yoga class. But will the hammering do all of that, really?
If we can stay with our feelings and relax our habitual thought responses, we begin to get familiar with the flow—the vinyasa—of our own experience. We can start to recognize that everything that arises also dissolves. Every noise and silence, sadness and delight—it’s all impermanent. Our asana practice can help us simply be with whatever it is that comes up.
When we can do this, we can start to look inside ourselves for growth. We can trust the practice itself—the practice of witnessing our lives. Can we show up fully for this? Can we pay attention and allow ourselves to be more curious about the way things are rather than focusing on how we may be able to manipulate the situation to fit our current desires?
Instead of trying to re-establish our equilibrium from moment to moment, we may find that we can ride noise and silence, hot and cold, yes and no, and joy and sorrow, just as a ship in the ocean stays afloat by rolling with the waves. Instead of losing equilibrium and needing a course correction, we become nimble, curious, and resilient. Our options expand. And as we learn to trust the practice, we learn to more fully trust ourselves.