I have spent a great deal of my life very concerned about getting things right. Or perhaps more pertinently, not getting things wrong. I’m still not sure what the great unspoken fear is – what exactly would happen if things ceased to be perfect – but it’s strong enough that I have spent most of my life getting things right as often, as perfectly, as possible.
If we’re not careful, it is easy for just this kind of thinking to guide our yoga practice. But as in so many other ways, when we bring awareness to old mental habits (and the temptation to perpetuate them) yoga gives us the choice to take a different approach.
When you start practicing yoga, it can be easy to mistake the shapes themselves for the goal. It is easy to become fixated on the idea of getting a posture ‘right’ – the idea of practising over and over again towards a perfect pose. But working in this way, taking the body down the same familiar grooves, narrows down our field of possibility. And it does nothing to address that fear that bubbles somewhere under the surface about getting it wrong. If we practise with the goal of a perfect posture somewhere in the future, we don’t challenge those lurking failure monsters at all; we feed them. Yoga becomes just another arena in which we can practice being perfect and getting things right.
But if we are able to observe this tendency, we are given the opportunity to use our yoga practice in a radically different way. We offer our mind an alternative mode of being in which the perfect outcome becomes less important than the moment-to-moment experience.
Rather than narrowing down towards one fixed, perfect posture, what if we consciously viewed our practice as a way of opening new possibilities, new pathways in our bodies? Rather than postures being end goals to work towards, what if they are the starting point, a template for you to use to begin exploring your body where it is today?
Rather than an external shape being the goal, we can use the internal sensations, the felt sense, as our guide and ground for exploration. I suggest altering the position of your body in each posture according to your subjective experience, paying careful attention to the internal experience of the posture. What are some of the internal cues that we can look out for?
- In each pose, become aware of areas that feel tight or restricted, frozen or dull. Can you find a way to bring more space into this area, more of a sense that it is a part of your body with the potential to breathe? Imagining this part of your body responding to your breath might help. Tiny movements, or big ones, might help. Feel free to explore and to see how you can find a sense of space in your own body. You are not confined to one fixed shape, and you get no prizes for holding your body totally still.
- Bring your awareness to your foundation – the parts of your body that are in contact with the floor. When the body feels the support of the ground, some of the places in your body that are holding on can feel safe to let go.
- Do you have a sense of your body as a whole, or is all of your attention stuck in one area? Although the sensation will inevitably be stronger in certain areas, if it is strong to the point that it takes over your awareness, it is likely that you are pushing too hard. How can you maintain a sense of sensation in the whole body?
- Can you feel your breath? Is it steady, or stuck? If it is not possible to breathe here, move towards a position that allows the breath to regain its steadiness.
- The more you practise, you might find other internal barometers, your own ways to assess the particular balance of effort and ease that your body needs today.
As a teacher, I offer adjustments to students and I am aware that – especially if your fear of not getting it right is strong – that this can feel like a correction. But these adjustments are always just suggestions – ideas for ways in which you might be able to find greater strength, stability, or space in a pose. You are free to follow them, but if the suggestion doesn’t alter your internal experience of the pose, then I encourage you to disregard them. I can’t tell how your body feels from the inside, and that must always be the guide.
You might find that, using these internal sensations as your guide, some unexpected movements or shapes appear. You might find that the suggestions that your body makes contradict some of the external rules and guidelines you have been given by me, or another teacher, or a yoga book you’ve read. Be aware when this is the case, but trust yourself enough to at least explore the possible avenues your body is suggesting.
The important thing to realise is that what you need to do to find the qualities of strength, stability and space in each pose will be quite different to what the person next to you needs to do. And what you need to do today will be different to what you needed to do yesterday, or what you will need to do next year. And to appreciate these differences for yourself, you need to be listening to what’s happening inside.
If you work with a mental image of the perfect posture, a shape that you are trying to make, then your possibilities are limited. But if you work with the goals of finding space, strength, stability and fluidity in every pose – from the inside out – the possibilities that grow from each pose are much broader. And when you practise with a focus on these qualities on your mat, they begin to emerge off the mat too.
If you use your practice as a time each day to try to touch your toes (an external/objective goal) then your hamstrings might get longer, but you might also continue through the rest of your day with limited awareness of your daily postures. But if you practice with attention to subjective experience, looking for space and ease in every shape you make on the mat, as well as the transitions between them, then you will find yourself looking for the same things outside. Once you know how to access the possibilities of space and ease in Crescent pose, or a forward bend, you will also begin finding them when you’re standing at the bus stop or brushing your teeth.
And you might begin to offer yourself space in other ways, too. You might begin to notice the way your breath constricts at the thought of getting something wrong. And maybe the experience of practicing yoga without trying to get it right will enable you to make yourself a little more space. Space for your breath to come back to a comfortable pattern, and space to explore and enjoy the task at hand, rather than constricting in the shadow of the fear of failure. Space to enjoy the success that comes from the enjoyment of a process, rather than being motivated by fear. And maybe even space to fail; to make mistakes; to not get it right all the time.
(With special thanks to my teachers Gemma and Aki for helping me to find and develop my own felt sense. If you are a teacher interested in developing a more “from the inside out” approach, check out Gemma’s ongoing advanced somatics training.)