Over the years, on being asked what I do and explaining that I teach yoga, I've got used to the common response "oh I'm no good at yoga, I can't even touch my toes!". In a culture in which yoga is portrayed mainly with photos of young, thin, strong and super flexible bodies, it's easy to understand where this response comes from.
For a long time this visual portrayal of what yoga is has bothered me (and many teachers). It hides the truth that yoga isn't a practice about being bendy or touching our toes. It can intimidate and alienate people who would benefit so much from yoga, but instead feel like it isn't for people "like them".
The truth is that we don't have to be flexible to enjoy the powerful effect of easing space into places that have held tension. Whatever shape, size or physical strength we have, we can connect to and deepen our breath, to bring about a calmer, more stable mind. In our busy lives, with its de
mands and challenges we can use our time on the mat to learn to be with our present moment experience with patience, acceptance and a big dose of compassion. We then take what we learn on the mat off the mat, into where yoga is most helpful, our everyday lives.
The last couple of months have been an interesting reminder of this for me. In early July I had planned surgery to remove some large fibroids that had been causing me difficulty. As it was rather invasive surgery (similar to a c-section) I prepared myself for getting to explore a very different body immediately post-op, to the one that I had known before.
Being someone who has practiced yoga and mindfulness for some time, I was strangely excited, although also very nervous, about how this would feel. I was used to being active, used to running from A to B, and enjoyed feeling strong and open in my body. But the day after the operation was a different story. I was now learning to be in a new body, where life had to be taken gently and slowly, where I needed to ask for help doing things that I was used to doing independently, where to get out of bed was a task to be geared up to, not taken for granted.
Had I become someone who couldn't do yoga? Not at all. Had I become someone who wasn't very good at yoga? There isn't such a thing.
Although my physical practice had to change dramatically – deep stretches and postures that required strength were replaced with the most subtle of movements, and often no movement at all – the power yoga held has never been more apparent. As I explored the new, and very different edges of where my body could move to, I had to be more mindful, patient and present than ever. As I breathed I was excited to realise that my breath could now expand to places that had been restricted by the fibroids. It was a huge reminder of how yoga is not about how deep you can go into a pose, but how deeply you can explore your own present moment experience. The ‘shape’ of these poses aren’t the goal of the practice, they are just the vehicle for allowing this process.
As I regain my strength the thought of doing a strong, dynamic practice still feels a long way off. As I begin to re-explore previously familiar poses I am greeted by tightness where there used to be space and wobbly weakness where there used to be strength. In a culture which invites us to be hugely judgemental of ourselves and our bodies, yoga offers us an opportunity to be with them, to embody them, to fill them with breath and awareness in a compassionate, mindful and non-judgemental way. This can feel truly liberating, whatever shape we find them in, whether fit, injured, happy, sad, well or dying. As a fellow teacher Norman Blair said to me afterwards “aren’t we lucky to have bodies and be in our bodies”. Those words really struck a chord with me. Yes we are.
So if you are nervous about stepping on the mat again after a summer break, or feel daunted about your ability to join a yoga class because you are stiff and tight with a crazy, busy mind, be kind to yourself. Know that we are all on the mat together, learning to meet ourselves as we are; practicing being patient, accepting and kind (because that takes a lot of practice and is hugely more helpful in life than being bendy!).
Am I a little nervous about teaching again, after two months off and when I can't physically practice all the things that I teach? Yes I am ... but over the years yoga has taught me to have a little acceptance and compassion for that too.
If you want to join the yoga journey, in whatever shape it finds you, it would be lovely to see you on the mat soon.