Over the years I have invited friends to join me for a yoga class. There was never any pressure for them to come, and friends would join me or they wouldn’t. It always felt a little odd when somebody would say “Oh I’m not flexible enough for yoga”, or a variety of other responses where they weren’t “enough” in some way. It felt weird to hear that because, on those grounds, I shouldn’t be going to yoga. I’m the least flexible person I know, my hamstrings have always been tight, and my arms are too short to reach the floor most of the time.
I think a lot of the apprehension around yoga comes from what we see on social media and in movies. We see a lot of super bendy, muscular women with perfect skin and perfect outfits holding very complex poses all over the apps on our phones. And a lot of yoga communities reflect that too. I get intimidated being in classes where people are popping up gracefully into handstands or moving easily into splits. So I totally understand this apprehension and feel it frequently.
But that’s actually what yoga is trying to eliminate. By practicing yoga, we learn how to turn off that voice in our head that says “I’m not enough”. We learn how to stop comparing ourselves to other people either on our phones, or practicing next to us.
Deconstructing “Not Enough” Mindsets
Yoga actually has nothing to do with being flexible, athletic, or having the “right” yoga clothes. One of my favorite definitions of yoga is from T.K.V. Desikachar. He says that yoga is being able to do what you could not do before. I don’t interpret that to mean being able to go into a handstand today when yesterday I couldn’t get my legs off the floor. The way I interpret it is in the small things that have little to do with my physical body. For example, yesterday I was able to make it through the day without feeling stressed about something that has been on my mind recently. I was able to be present in every moment and enjoy every moment without letting my anxieties take over my whole day. That to me is more yoga than getting into a handstand. It can also look like making it to yoga class, or on your mat, when yesterday you were in too much pain, or too exhausted to move. Even if all you do is sit in lotus pose, or in a supported child’s pose, that is something you could do today that you could not do yesterday.
Yoga meets you where you are. You might hear this from teachers a lot, but that’s because we know how true it is. And how important it is to hear that. I say it to myself every day. I am not here to fit my body into a certain sequence or pose. I am practicing yoga in a way that meets me exactly where I am. This is one of the reasons I love the Accessible Yoga teaching style so much. As an Accessible Yoga teacher, I encourage my students to listen to their own needs. Yes, look around the room if you’re unfamiliar with a pose, or you got lost in your child’s pose and have to catch up (which happens to me a lot). And know that every single person in that room has a different reason for being there, has different needs than you do, and was in a different place yesterday. Your poses will look different. Embrace that. Personalize it. I always use my blocks, I use them in almost every pose. I know that’s what my body needs in order to feel supported and safe in a pose. It took me a long time to learn how to give my body what it needed.
The other aspect of this phrase “I’m not __ enough” has to do with the ego. It deals with the ego in the sense that we are oftentimes attached to some image we have of ourselves. Ahaṃkāra can be understood as “identifying with or attachment to one’s ego”. The way that this manifests, at least for me, is that I find myself thinking about the way I present myself to others and my attachment to that image. This attachment leads to competition, but not necessarily in a good way. An example of this would be jumping into crow pose on a day when I have shoulder pain, a headache, and actually haven’t learned how to properly move into the pose. I want others to see me as this “expert yoga practitioner” and so I force my body into something that will cause me harm. I care more about this image of myself than what my actual needs are. Or perhaps I believe that people will only trust me as a yoga teacher if I wear all of the latest yoga clothing lines, when in reality, I practice in 10 year old biker shorts from my cheerleading days and an old T-Shirt from college. This obsession with portraying my authority through my possessions is another example of attachment to ego. Having an ego is ok, but being attached to it is where we run into problems. Here’s a link to an article that delves further into the topic of the ego and yoga if you’re interested in learning more.
Finding a yoga teacher and community that supports your individual needs is therefore so important. If we don’t have that leadership, we’re all going to be focusing more on the pose than on the “why” behind the pose. We won’t know how to listen to our bodies and our emotions. We won’t know how to combat our egos. Teachers that encourage us to look at our practice in a way that defeats this ego are so important. I practice yoga to grow into the person I am, not the person I want others to see me as.
How do I make yoga work for me?
This was a confusing thing for me to do. It is so easy for us to group yoga into fitness because of how the West has appropriated it over time. I had to unlearn years of pushing through the pain and learn how to actually respond to my body when it was telling me “no more”. If I were training for a race, then I might push past that edge, but yoga isn’t a sport, so why would I apply an athletic mindset to my yoga practice? Once I found teachers that reminded me regularly to listen to my body, I was able to identify my limits and start respecting them, rather than routinely pushing past them.
That said, there are some days where I meet my edge and it’s ok to push past it a little, but I need to know myself in order to do that. I need to know the difference between pain and discomfort. It might be challenging to hold a pose for a few more seconds, but it shouldn’t be painful. If it’s painful, I know I have gone beyond my limits.
So how do we learn where that edge is? I invite you next time you practice yoga to feel each pose and ask yourself, how can I make this pose even better for me? How can I make this enjoyable? Maybe easing out of it will make me more comfortable. Or maybe going deeper into a stretch will provide me with some movement in an area of my body that is asking for it. What do you need? Regularly check in with yourself. Every time I move into a pose I ask myself “how does this feel?”. If my first reaction is “ouch”, then I need to change something about what I’m doing. If it’s “wow, this is tough, but I have this”, then I’ll stay until I meet my edge. Finally, there are the poses where I think “Wow. This is great. Let’s stay here until the class is over.” Regularly asking myself how I’m doing creates an awareness that allows me to deepen my practice physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
You Can Do Yoga
So to sum it all up into one sentence: you can do yoga because yoga is for everybody.
Every day I step onto my mat and I know that this practice will look different from other people’s practices. It will look different from my own practice the day before! I am here to be exactly who I am at this moment. And I will breathe. And I will move through a practice that supports what I need right now, in this very second. And my yoga practice will look different from other people’s because I need different things at this very moment. So the next time you think you’re not “(fill in the blank) enough” to do yoga, know that you are enough. You are exactly who you need to be and yoga is right here waiting for you.