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Mindful : October 2015
Many people have transformed first their bodies and then their lives through dedication to an intensely physical practice. Yoga truly can be life-changing. But I’ve experienced, too, how incredible experiences of transformation fueled by discipline and determination can fan the flames of the ego: It’s a short slide from feeling your own personal excitement about a newfound ability to showing it off. When I’m not practicing with awareness, the loudmouthed voice of determination and pride in my head can quickly override the quiet voice of my actual experience, which, if I lis- tened to it, would prevent me from feel- ing smug about my accomplishments, as well as from injuring myself or tor- turing myself because my body can’t do what I want it to. The trick, of course, is to practice just to practice and to enjoy the changes yoga produces with- out putting too much stock in them—to practice without expecting or striving for or celebrating any particular result. THE EFFORT MYTH Life sometimes throws you a chal- lenge that cannot be solved by making yourself stronger or more capable. Sometimes the limits before you are not imagined, but scarily real, and trying to push past them only results in injury. Plus, when things get truly difficult—when your body falls ill, your lover betrays you, you lose your job—you need something more potent than willpower and six-pack abs. “Our culture perpetuates this myth that if you ‘do everything right,’ you just get stronger, healthier, more advanced, richer, etcetera, but nobody has that life,” says Amsterdam, the InnerYoga founder, who is also a visiting scholar in the social computing group at the MIT Media Lab where she is develop- ing awareness-based self-care tools for educational and workplace environ- ments. “ We have to acknowledge the nature of reality, which is that every life is full of challenge and change.” When you encounter a challenge, it helps to have a calm, steady mind that and, vainly, the look of my newly toned body. I, along with millions of other Americans, had embraced an experience of yoga that was fueled by strength, speed, and sweat. “The flexibility plus strength plus breath of Power Flow Yoga undoubt- edly makes you feel good,” says Dina Amsterdam, a San Francisco-based yoga teacher who once led fun, sweaty, flow classes. She has since founded InnerYoga, an approach that incor- porates traditional yoga and other modalities into a self-care practice designed to support students in all aspects of their life. “In a culture that is so sedentary, these fast-moving, joy- ful, aerobic classes serve a huge pur- pose. They get students back in their bodies. But it’s a bit of a misnomer to call it yoga,” she smiles. “ Yoga is the union of awareness and embodiment.” NO LIMITS? A strenuous yoga practice can be fan- tastic. There is something undeniably seductive about becoming more phys- ically capable. It’s fun to challenge yourself and to feel your stress melt into a sweaty smile. Plus, the strength and mobility you gain with practice means you’re soon able to do more than you ever thought possible. When that happens and you suddenly find yourself touching your toes instead of your knees, or flying up into your first handstand, you feel alive in the best possible way—inspired, empowered, transformed. For many of us, that physical transformation comes with a powerful revelation: Your perceived limitations may be nothing more than an imag- ined set of boundaries, easily pushed aside by a few months of dedicated effort. At some point, you might dis- cover that this is true of life as well as asana—if you apply yourself, expand your view of what’s possible, and take bold actions that you were previously afraid to consider, you will set yourself on a course of transformation. You realize that you are more capable than you thought of living your dreams! doesn’t run from the truth of a dismal situation, but can focus on understand- ing it. You might benefit from being strong, but also soft enough to let in pain, anger, and grief without mind- lessly reacting to them. You would be well served by the ability to concen- trate, despite the emotional distrac- tions, and act intelligently in a crisis. These are, of course, skills that yoga can teach us—if we are not too busy powering through our push-ups to practice with awareness. As Kaivalya says, “It really doesn’t matter whether you can do the pose, what matters is experiencing a state of wholeness that allows you to become awesomely OK with everything that’s happening in your life.” LISTENING ON THE INSIDE The physical practice of yoga can be a fantastic place to begin to know your- self, to become intimate enough with yourself that you can ask: What do I need to feel physically and mentally balanced and content? And what kind of practice can help me get there? Yoga as an awareness practice nei- ther celebrates nor discourages strong physical practice. It asks only one thing: that you approach practice from within, cultivating a relationship with yourself and exploring your own feel- ings, thoughts, and relationships to the poses, rather than striving to ful- fill an expectation of what yoga should look like, feel like, or do for you. Perhaps the most valuable (and sweetest) thing I’m reminded of at each Tuesday class is something that we can all try, whether we are prac- ticing yoga or not: To take a moment at the beginning of a practice or a new day and greet yourself with kindness and tenderness, as you would a dear friend. You can do this on your mat before moving a muscle, or on your meditation cushion before your first attempt to focus the mind, or in bed before starting your day. You might spend a minute or two appreciating yourself for making it to the mat or cushion or for your → October 2015 mindful 45 yoga