We all face various obstacles in our paths. Over the years in my yoga and meditation practice I have struggled with powerful “enemies.” Some of them haunt me consistently while others seem to come and go. When they appear, they can rob the beauty and life out of the practice by distracting us, shifting our focus onto things that are not important. Beware. They are out there, and they will show up when you least expect them. Let me introduce you to eight of mine.
Self. I was new to yoga—just a few months into it. I was feeling great—on top of the world. I was young, strong, fairly flexible, and the postures came to me naturally. But my mind was so convoluted. I was running through the poses, almost like eating without chewing. Trying to run before knowing how to walk. Breathe? Who cares about breath? I’m breathing now, right? I was speeding through the sequences, getting to the postures before my teacher’s cue, as if that were a sign of proficiency. I thought that getting into the asanas more quickly made them more effective. I was trying to make a statement to all the people around me. I got here first. I am the one—like the first man on the moon. I see this behavior a lot among my students. Often those who rush into the postures so quickly are the ones who don’t breathe properly, have poor alignment, and have yet to discover the deeper meaning of practice.
Others. She is too close to me. He is invading my space. What is she wearing? He makes a lot of noise. She snores in class. He smells. She moans. He farts. Who does she think she is? He sweats too much. She breathes too loudly. He always arrives late. She is staring at me. He has no clue what he’s doing. She always leaves before class ends. Have you ever found yourself judging the other students in the room? While I am as guilty as anyone else, these days I am trying to think of the person who pushes my buttons in class (or anywhere else) as my teacher. That’s where the teaching is. That’s what my practice is going to be. Acceptance. Tolerance. Compassion. We all are looking for something. We all come from different backgrounds. But the way we treat others is the hidden treasure of our practice.
The teacher. So you know some of the postures and now you think you own the truth. Maybe you have done a teacher training or a workshop or two. You think that you have some authority about how the posture or flow should go. You begin mentally to judge or criticize your teacher and his or her approach to the practice. You start designing your own practice, erasing the presence of the teacher in your mind. If you don’t like the class, you do your own thing, skipping, switching, modifying, eliminating, or altering the order of the poses. All of a sudden you are starring in your own yoga DVD in your head and the students around you have become your audience. Often you want to do more advanced variations in between restorative postures. Over the years I have struggled with this point myself, because we all want to have a good practice. But lately, the thing I care about the most is being humble and respectful toward my instructor, no matter how good or bad the class. I do my own “advanced” thing but only if my teacher is okay with me adding a posture here and there. Of course, I wouldn’t do anything that might be harmful or too much for me.
Environment/Setting. The room is too hot. The room is too cold. The fans are on. The fans are off. The mats are thick. The mats are thin. The curtains are open. The curtains are closed. The blocks are hard. The blocks are soft. The music is loud. There is no music. You speak too loudly. You speak too softly. You kicked my ass. You didn’t kick my ass. Class is too crowded. Class is too empty. Please adjust me. Please don’t touch me.
There is that moment when you glimpse some of the many benefits of the practice and you are committed and engaged and want to have the best possible experience no matter what. You want the right temperature, the perfect mat, the most stylish yoga pants, the best bottle of water, and so forth. I understand all that. Yet if your focus is so determined by external factors, it acts as an obstacle to your ultimate goal. I still struggle with this at times, especially as a teacher. I have to be okay with teaching at a less-than-optimal temperature or with too much noise or with a group of students at such mixed levels that it is impossible to take care of all of them. Teaching—like practice—is always a work in progress.
Injuries. The end is near. The show can’t go on. My yoga career is over! I will never be able to practice again! I will have to frame my mat and hang it on a wall or donate it to the Salvation Army. We all go through cycles of injury and pain. Over the years I’ve seen in myself and in others the roller coaster of emotions that sets is when we are injured, and the repercussions it has on our practice. We are so attached to a specific way of practicing that an injury can cause us to become totally disoriented and to think our yoga days are over. But you know what? You always heal…in time. There will always be a type of yoga that will be suitable for you after your injury has healed or you’ve had surgery or completed physical therapy. Of course, it will require lots of patience, but if your intention is clear, you will always be able to practice some kind of yoga. Plus, you have the entire spectrum of other yogic teachings to practice: meditation, breathing techniques, relaxation, restorative asanas, and so on.
Boredom. What happens when your practice starts to feel a little boring? Is boredom such a bad thing? At times a little boredom is an important ingredient of the practice. It makes you look inward instead of waiting for the next best sparkly thing to catch your attention. Do I have to be continuously in search of stimulation? Do I always have to master the next posture? What happens when I calm down? What happens if my teacher doesn’t do great sequences or doesn’t play great music? What if I just move my body through the postures as I observe the breath with no expectations of any kind—without demands or preconceptions—and simply enjoy my time? Right here, right now.
Aging. No one is getting any younger, and over time the body will show you your limitations. And that’s a beautiful teaching. My body is not the same now as it was ten years ago, when I was twenty-four, and I know it will feel completely different when I am forty-four—or, like many of my students, when I’m in my fifties, sixties, or seventies. I don’t fight my age or my limitations. I have to embrace them. I know there are postures that are not meant for me in this lifetime. And I’m okay with that. There is nothing to prove with these postures. We definitely have to be more alert and know our limitations as we age, but we can still enjoy the many benefits of yoga. If getting older is your enemy, get over it. Practice in a mindful way. As I’ve been saying in class a lot lately: “Less is more. Be mindful.”
Life. Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all is life in general, with its ups and downs, its different seasons: changing jobs, looking for jobs, long hours, long commutes, tiredness, sickness, finances, monthly memberships, the snow, the cold, kids being born, taking care of kids, taking care of parents, responsibilities, commitments. Finding the space and the time to practice can be one of the most difficult things to accomplish these days, when our lives are polluted with incessant activities. The worst thing that we can do is bring ourselves down when we can’t practice as much as we want or meditate as much as we need. There will always be obstacles coming our way. It’s important to remember that even the obstacles are part of the practice.