I teach yoga classes throughout the Cheshire area, mainly in Stockton Heath in Warrington and the Cuddington area of mid Cheshire. In my yoga classes I often see people looking around at the other students in the class. We like to compare ourselves to others, and often in modern society we are judged on our achievements. Especially when you are doing a local class you may already know or be acquainted with other students. It can be easy to make comparisons or to worry that others will judge us for our skill on the yoga mat.
However in yoga we can achieve a lot without it being externally visible, with our lives changing from the inside out as we become calmer, happier and less stressed. Our interpersonal relationships may be the first to notice the differences; family, partners and friends will often note how a yogi has become easier to be around! It is not about the asana (physical postures) but about working with your breath to bring your mind and body into awareness. For me yoga practice is about learning to enjoy life more comfortably, mentally and physically, not about attaining a physical goal.
Yoga is non competitive and I am of the theory that ‘if you can breathe then you can do yoga’ (Desikachar). It is also about more than just the physical practice on the mat and in the next few blog entries I am planning to explore the subject of yamas and niyamas…how we treat ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. However in the Western world we are often more focused on the physical aspect of yoga and this encourages comparison and competition. Not only will our physical abilities be a result of our experience, how regular our practice is, but also our genetic predisposition and basic anatomy make a difference. Some student are naturally more flexible, and some naturally stronger. Practice can help us all improve but some of us will never find the physical flexibility easy.
However for me it is also the mental flexibility that improves with regular practice. As you learn to contort your body into positions that you probably would not have spontaneously adopted you learn to expand your mind. Your mind gets more open not just to the philosophy and ideas of yoga, but also to the experiences and flexibility required for a peaceful life. If we are stuck in our ways and inflexible then when things change we are less able to adapt. As our mind becomes more flexible then we are more easily able to adapt and aclimatise to the new situation. It is sometimes said that learning inversions can be nerve racking because we are literally turning our world upside down. However becoming comfortable in inversions gives us the mental strength and flexibility to cope when our worlds do ‘turn upside down’. In a similar way learning to use the breath in twisting postures helps us to move through life. Working with a twist in yoga encourages us to exhale to move deeper; to let go & relax tension to allow us to find space. Literally to let go & turn inward to allow us to find a spaciousness in what initially may have felt immobile or tight.
This is just one example of how the flexibility of the body is matched in yoga by improving the flexibility of the mind. As our minds become more flexible we are able to accept that we are all different & we all shine in different areas. For me as a yoga teacher, the student who discovers more about themselves & their internal world through their physical practice, is learning more from yoga than the student who can easily flow into a difficult physical practice. So remember that yoga is about more than just physical postures; that the asana are just one of eight areas which Patanjali focused on as the practice of yoga.
So when you are enviously looking at the student on the mat next to you fold their foot up by their ear, focus internally on your breath, close your eyes and take your awareness back to your flexibility of mind! Stop worrying about other students and just enjoy your own journey!