Yogi Assignment: Depth
Myth buster—Yoga is not easy and yoga should not always feel good.
I realize that this might not be the best news you’ve heard about yoga or the most positive promotional words about yoga, but I want to keep it real. There is often a discrepancy between the curated imagery of yoga in mainstream advertising and the reality of dedicated daily practice. I realize that I must take some responsibility for that because I too produce peaceful looking yoga photos and videos. While yoga is in fact a path of peace, that is a longterm promise. This ancient spiritual tradition is not built on instant gratification. Yes, eventually your practice will bring you a sense of peace. But no, your practice will not (and should not) always feel good immediately.
Yoga, like all true spiritual practice, is confronting. I’ve personally been challenged by this aspect of yoga. There have been times when I have not been able to face the depths that my practice asked me for. One such time was during a two year bout of depression where I battled suicidal ideation nearly every day. I kept doing asana but I stopped meditating then because I could not face the darkness of my own inner world. It was the biggest mistake I made. And, it was the choice to get back to my spiritual practice that ultimately began to light the path out of that darkness. Today, I sit even day, even if just for five minutes and I practice Ashtanga Yoga, even if only a few poses, six days a week. The ritual of spiritual practice is the sustenance that keeps me afloat through challenging times. But, if I wanted my practice to always be light, free and easy, then I would not be practicing today.
Take the asana called Kapotasana as an example. This challenging backbend from the Ashtanga Yoga Second Series is often called a gateway pose because it brings up emotional, physical and spiritual obstacles. Some students quit Ashtanga Yoga and even yoga altogether because they feel overwhelmed by the demand of this pose. I am writing this to change the paradigm that you have towards pain and difficulty so that when you meet it in your practice you will have the strength to face it with grace. It is my hope that you will remember these words in difficult times and be inspired to continue your practice, whether those times arise during Kapotasana or any other pose.
The truth of the matter is that there are times, both in yoga and even more often in life, when a quick affirmation, an inspirational quote or a positive thinking workshop just won’t do the trick. There is wisdom in suffering and grace in pain too. If we spend our lives avoiding pain and suffering by either running away into addictions or immediately “thinking positive” when something that registers as negative comes up, then we run the risk of creating an artificially-induced two-dimensional reality that lacks the full range of human emotions. In order to fulfill your full potential as a vibrant human being you need to be willing to feel it all—and that includes the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful and everything in between. If your self-acceptance and self-love is based on living a life where everything goes your way and you are always in a state of positivity, then you will constantly fail. But if your self-acceptance and self-love is big enough to include the dips down into the doldrums of life, your heart will be big enough to love sit with your own and other people’s pain and not be shaken. You will be capable of true compassion, that is, suffering with.
I have practiced Kapotasana for almost twenty years. I learned the pose from my teacher within the first year I practiced Ashtanga Yoga. There are times when I have been able to do the pose quite deeply and other times when it was inaccessible. There have been moments when the pose has felt blissful, but other times when it has been pure torture. Along the way I’ve grown from each experience. Yoga philosophy believes that we each must face certain obstacles along our path. These obstacles are either dormant, activated or in full bloom. What you feel largely depends on which stage the particular obstacle you face is in. Sometimes you may touch a sleeping obstacle only to stimulate it and bring it to the surface. In that instant, yoga would tell you not to cover it over with “happy” thoughts, try to eradicate it or run away from it. Yoga asks you just to stay, to sit with the difficulty and allow it. In the state of allowing, things shift and change. As long as you’re fighting against it or thinking it “should not” be there there is an antagonism that ties you deeper into the cycle of suffering related to that particular obstacle. Here’s an example: in the months when I practiced Kapotasana with pain I could have skipped the pose or tried to make the pain go away, but instead I modified the posture to the best of my ability and allowed the pain to be there. For nearly two years when I attempted this asana I had a burning sensation in sacra-iliac joints. I did not push through the pain and force the pose, nor did I run away from the pain. Instead, I just allowed it to be there, remained accepting and curious about what the pain had to teach me. While it certainly didn’t feel good, I did learn how to be peaceful and even happy amidst what was rather intense pain. And, just like all things, the pain shifted. I learned new techniques and depth in body and the asana returned. It wasn’t exactly the same, it and I had changed from the journey. In fact so much of what I teach in my backbending classes today is based in what I learned from that
Life, I believe, can be just like this. There are difficulties that arise and these are lessons meant to teach us. We can choose whether or not we are ready to dive into the depth of our life lessons or not. And sometimes it’s ok if we aren’t ready to dive too deeply in. But eventually those lessons will be there waiting for us and we will have to face them. If the obstacle is in full bloom and you cover it over with a quick band-aid, it will bear fruit once more. Yoga seeks to dig out the obstacles by the root and then eventually remove them all. But, instead of a fight, the means of removal is love and acceptance. The only way to fully clear the field of the mind and open the heart is with the fire of love.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been an intense person. I’ve never really wanted the light option. I’m like that with both yoga and life. I want the depth-level experience. I want to dive straight into the heart of whatever is arising and find the source. What I’ve found is a true peace that passes all understanding and a happiness that goes beyond any temporary life situations. If you want to experience that too, I hope you’ll join me on the mat, every day, for the rest of your life.
This week’s Yogi Assignment is Depth. I invite you to explore the depth-level of your practice and in your life.