Exploring Your Edges in Asana
Recently I’ve been introducing some more challenging poses in my yoga classes. Several of my students have been practicing for quite a while and seem ready and enthusiastic to try some new poses. We progress into these more intermediate poses by building on foundational poses, and I strongly encourage students to remain at a stage that is safe and appropriate for them. However, I have been concerned about possible frustration or striving among those who are not ready to move beyond the more basic stages of a pose, probably because these attitudes have arisen for me at times in my own practice.
I have been thinking quite a bit, then, about how to communicate about working at your appropriate edge in asana, and about what distinguishes yoga from gymnastics—what makes yoga more than physical exercise.
Benefits of Alignment-Based Yoga
Especially because I teach an alignment-based style of yoga, I am aware of how important it is to remind my students (and myself) that our yoga practice is not about achieving a perfect pose. Although the alignment focus does offer tremendous physical benefits, such as safety, improved strength and flexibility, and optimal inner spaciousness in the poses, it offers other, more subtle benefits as well.
I love the way the alignment focus fosters concentration and present moment awareness. Paying attention to the subtle actions of my entire body helps my mind to stay present rather than drifting off into thought or into comparing myself to the yogi in class next to me or to pictures in a book or magazine.
In addition, alignment cues help with finding my safe edge in a pose, enabling the deeper process of working with that edge and observing my tendencies. Can I accept where I am in this pose, without striving or judging myself? Do I have a tendency to push too hard, risking injury and losing my equanimity for the sake of achieving an external form? Or do I have a tendency to avoid effort and shrink back at any discomfort (such as muscular fatigue, or a stretching sensation)?
Advanced Poses and Advanced Practice: Not Mutually Exclusive, but Not the Same Thing
Because of myriad differences, such as length of practice, prior exercise experience, and genetic predisposition, some yoga students will find their edge by progressing to a more advanced pose, or a deeper variation of a pose. The benefits and gifts of yoga, however, are just as accessible to a student who is practicing a more basic or modified pose with focus, awareness, and acceptance. Nurturing an attitude of self-acceptance is one of the primary goals of my yoga teaching and practice. The phrase “right now it’s like this,” which I first heard from one of my meditation teachers, can be a useful reminder to maintain a gentle, accepting outlook.
I am grateful to my students for the opportunity to give more thought to the topic of acceptance, and for the reminder to focus on my present moment experience, accept my present situation, and work skillfully with myself. This attitude toward my yoga practice is wonderful preparation for the inevitable changes in my physical practice, whether due to illness, aging, or other circumstances. Yoga, like all of life, can only happen and be experienced right now, and accepting it, however it is, is key to my happiness and well-being.