“Advanced” Yoga asana practice

What if I told you that an ‘advanced’ yoga asana practice has nothing to do with how deep you go into a stretch or how acrobatic your poses are? To be honest, I actually don’t like the idea of calling an asana class ‘advanced’ because I feel that it can (mis)lead yoga students towards achieving something instead of encouraging them to know and respect their bodies.

As a Yoga teacher, I experience resistance from certain students to modify poses when I suggest it, even when I keep repeating that the most important is to keep the body safe, and that the body needs to be at ease in order to maintain an even rhythm of breath. It seems to me that some of them even feel ashamed when I suggest that they rather sit on a chair than on the floor. Why is there shame connected to the limits of our bodies?

In the yoga asana practice the most important is the mindset we have while practicing than what kind of poses we do. The yoga asana practice can be such a powerful tool to keep the body healthy by balancing between stability (strength) and mobility (flexibility), and learning to keep a deep and even rhythm of breath. We use the breath to calm the mind and the nervous system so we can bring our attention to the body as we move in and out of poses.

It isn’t the complexity of the pose that makes the practice powerful, it is the attention we pay to the body and the breath. I would argue that an ‘advanced’ yogi is the one that knows and respects his/her body and patiently practices with the goal of moving at ease in everyday life and, ideally, to be able to sit in meditation with the same ease.

There are several problems I see with the pursuit of complex poses, or what we often call an ‘advanced’ practice. Instead of cultivating a calmer state of mind, we stress the body and the mind by constantly pushing ourselves to achieve that pose that we think will bring some sort of satisfaction. In this pursuit we can get lost in ego and in the worst case senario hurt our body. What happens when our body can’t achieve that specific pose we want to achieve, or when with age, we loose some flexibility and/or strength? Are we then ‘less’ yogis?

We live in times where we are so used to put pressure on ourselves in almost all aspects of our life. It is so difficult to be content with what we have and where we are without having the feeling that we should be aiming for more. We are constantly wanting to improve, to get more, to achieve more. But how much is enough? If we bring this mindset to the yoga mat, we are not doing anything to help us improve our lifestyle, we are just bringing our stress, doubts and worries to the mat and nothing changes.

Lastly, I would argue that an advanced yogi is the one that little by little starts establishing his/her own practice. The role of the teacher is to guide, but at the end of the day, the advanced yogi knows his/her body and mind so well, that he/she is able to choose what is right for him/her.

So next time you’re in a yoga class and the teacher hands you a block, accept it with curiosity and see what it does to your body in that specific pose. 🙂

Who’s the teacher?

Last night, I couldn’t sleep. We’ve had had a meeting about our middle daughter at school that day to discuss how she’s doing, what the school is doing to support her learning and social wellbeing and what the plan ahead is. She is coming closer to middle school and we soon have to decide whether she stays at her current school or we change her to the local public school.

I won’t make this too long but the most important question is, of course, what is best for her? After the meeting yesterday, I still felt unable to decide. Is she being supported to develop to her full potential? Would this tough phase, especially socially, improve as she and her classmates mature? What if we change schools? Will it be better? Worse?

Even though I was trying to calm my mind, breathing deeply, I couldn’t sleep.

In the morning, I got out of bed, did my sadhana and chatted briefly with my teacher who reminded me to be patient and allow clarity to come.

I started my day and as usual with the morning family routine. Dropped the kids at school and walked to the Yoga class I teach Tuesday mornings.

I have one student for the moment in that class. I was happy to see her because I had prepared a class thinking of what we had done last week and what she had told me she needs for her back. Last week, she had also shown interest in meditation, and I suggested we could spend the last fifteen minutes of the class today with some simple exercises to calm the mind.

After the session, we chatted a bit about her experience. She told me she had observed she was slightly anxious about a job she had to do this week, and she couldn’t understand why since she knows the routine. We continued chatting and came to the conclusion that sometimes our mind is used to certain patterns that don’t really help us. Like this anxiety of hers. It is maybe out of habit. Work=anxiety. And then it hit me: my mind too is used to worrying! Yes, I do need to make an important choice for my daughter, but I don’t need to worry unnecessarily about it. I just need to follow my gut feeling and trust that for the moment, that is the best choice I can make.

There are so many learning experiences out there for us, we just need to stay present to see them.

I am so thankful to be able to teach, it is through teaching that I stay present and I learn most 💕

Space is magic

Create space for yourself. In all your states. Don’t panic, no thought or emotion will stay forever. Enjoy the good ones and observe the bad ones. What are they trying to say? The more space you create inside yourself, the easier it is to deal with your changing emotions and moods without looking for external answers, they tend to disappoint.

Create the space to see all sides of yourself. Accept and love yourself for who you are. Only by looking directly into your innermost thoughts and attitudes, you will be able to make small adjustments here and there that will bring you to a better place. Only by exercising the art of setting yourself free, you will be able to see other people with eyes of compassion and understanding.

Create space for those around you to thrive and grow. Give love and see it flow. Love is always the answer no matter what. Don’t measure the love you give. Don’t be afraid, the more you give, the more you have. Lead with the example, lead with the heart, and you’ll see magic moments arise. Keep your eyes open though, and don’t stare at one spot. Love will flow from sometimes the most unexpected places.

Create space for those around you to struggle, to be challenging, to show their moods. It is never about you, it is all about their inner life too. Just like you, they have their own internal battles, and just like you, all they need is the space to experience, to learn and to move forward. If you don’t push back, if you are curious, if you are present, you will be able to either help or step back. When we give space to others, magic happens, the other gets time to react, to reflect and then come back in a calmer state.

Space is really magic.

Busy bee? Not today

I need to start creating moments during the day to take a pause. It doesn’t matter if it is five minutes, ten minutes or a whole hour. I tend to get caught in the misleading idea that every minute of the day needs to be used in a ‘productive’ way. Either at work or at home. Why do I keep falling into this silly pattern? I don’t know.

Sometimes, some extra time falls from heaven like today. Thursday last lesson, I teach yoga as an elective to some students in our school, but I had forgotten that their class was on a trip today. I prepared  myself and the classroom and nobody showed up. It felt so good to then spend the time to do my own asana practice and I even took five minutes to lie down in shavasana. It would have been too time consuming to change back to my regular clothes and tidy up just to try to get some work done before the end of the school day.

Sometimes, I have to create the time for myself like this week. I just didn’t feel like rushing through the house to get it cleaned during a weekday evening, I didn’t feel like hurrying up. Instead, I invited myself for a run by the sea in the gorgeous Spring weather, and left the cleaning for later this week. I genuinely felt revitalised that evening and the next day.

Everyday, I create a space and  time in the early morning to do my sadhana. This is non negotiable, but I keep forgetting that if I need something, the best person to provide it is myself. Never expect anyone to give you what you need, you need to take self-responsibility to take care of yourself. No one is going to ask you to stop spinning around because we live in a society that cultivates and encourages business, and you know what? That is nonsense.

Self-compassion

Let a man lift himself by himself; let him not degrade himself; for the Self alone is the friend of the self and the Self alone is the enemy of the self. Bhagavad Gita Chapter 6 verse 5

Compassion is an important aspect in the practice of Yoga and one of the core values in Buddhism. I recently asked both my adult yoga students and my teenage yoga students what compassion is for them, and their answers inspired me to write this post.

I can start like I did with my students by asking what is compassion for you? Take a moment to think about it before you read further.

The common definition that most of us use is being understanding and kind towards others. The definition in the dictionary is slightly different: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

Very few students include themselves as an important object of compassion when defining the word.  However, according to the Yogic and Buddhist traditions, in order to cultivate compassion towards others, we have to first cultivate compassion towards ourselves. If this is a new idea for you, take some time to reflect on it. Doesn’t it make sense? But what does that mean? How do we show compassion towards ourself?

I asked one of my teenage yoga students how she shows compassion towards herself, and she answered “by eating chocolate”. Eventhoug there is nothing wrong with enjoying something we like,  I think this illustrates how we sometimes tend to misunderstand what self-compassion is, and that is why I opened this post with the quote from chapter 6 in the Bhagavad Gita.

We often think that we are being kind towards ourselves by indulging in something, especially when we experience distress. It can be food, alcohol, TV, social media, you name it. In my perspective, this is only a way of escaping from that distress. We might get the illusion that we are alleviating it, but in reality we are just hiding it or pushing it away. That is not self-compassion.

Self-compassion requires courage, it requires the ability to see beyond our fear. We have to first have the courage to stop running away and face the source of our distress, which we often have the illusion comes from the outside world, but if we look closely, we will discover that it comes from inside us.

So, I wonder, when am I doing something ‘kind’ towards myself that will allow me to continue growing as a spiritual being and what am I using as crutches to avoid the fall, the pain, the distress?

I have already shared in a post the distress I sometimes cause inside myself because I get caught up in thoughts and emotions. I recently realized that I haven’t been showing self-compassion at all. Although it is positive to be aware of one’s flaws, one’s dark sides, it is harming to be judgemental about them. The advice in Yoga is so subtile, I think. We are encouraged to confront our inner darkness but we have to accept it first and then make small adjustments at a time. As a dear friend recently said to me, you need to embrace the monster inside you to move forward.

Only when we decide to live a life of awareness, of rude honesty towards ourselves, will we be able  be compassionate towards ourselves and thus lift ourselves forward.

In the process, compassion towards others starts to come easier and more naturally as we keep discovering our dark sides, our weaknessess and we then can identify with other people’s distress. This allows us to be less judgemental and more understanding, more tolerant, more willing to help.