In Part 1 of this Fear Factor series, I addressed the issue of fear with respect to falling down and cracking one’s head open. In Part 2, I’d like to talk about a different kind of fear: the fear of wimping out.
I think just about everyone who has done yoga finds themselves being competitive at times during their practice. But even seasoned yogis need to be reminded that yoga is not about competition, nor is it about being “good” at poses, “getting” poses right, or being “better” than the next guy. In the end, you do yoga according to your level of experience and according to where you body is at on that particular day. Even if you always do a certain pose in a certain way, because it’s your pose, maybe today you need to take a modification.
This is not to say, of course, that we can just forget about doing the poses correctly or that we can forget about proper alignment. Rather, the point here is that the physical positioning of the body in the asanas is not the end goal, but an expression of the underlying relationship between a yogi’s mind and body. Here’s a more direct way to put it: Getting your hand to the floor in Parivrtta Trikonasana (aka Twisted Triangle Pose) while panting and grunting and throwing your hips all out of line is not doing yoga; it’s touching the floor while panting and grunting and throwing your hips out of line.
This sort of competitive behavior seems to be driven largely by the fear of looking like a beginner or not being as good as everyone else in the class. Teachers sometimes unintentionally encourage this by saying things like “more advanced students can try asana modifcation X.” This sort of instruction can be very counterproductive, I think, because it essentially puts the student on the spot and requires him to ask of himself, “Am I advanced, intermediate, or beginner?” In other words, this instruction prods each student to pass judgment on himself according to some artificial hierarchy. This is really not the kind of thing we should be thinking about during our asana practice, if ever.
Many of us, particularly those who have practiced yoga for some time, may have developed a certain lofty self-conception of ourselves as “advanced” yogis and strive unreasonably to maintain that image in each asana we do during our practice. On the flip side, I see many newer yogis straining themselves into horrible looking, contorted positions in an attempt to “get” the more advanced versions of various asanas. In the end, though, when we’re on the yoga mat, we’re not advanced yogis or beginner yogis; we are just yogis meditating our way through a graceful connection between breath and movement. And, as one of my teachers used to say, once we lose this connection between breath and movement, we’re not doing yoga anymore; we’re doing Indian calisthenics.
So, these days, when I find myself working really hard in my yoga practice, I try to check-in with myself periodically and observe whether I’m working hard because my mind, body, and breath are “in it,” so to speak, or whether it’s some underlying fear of not living up to my expectations of myself that’s really driving me. I’m surprised (and perhaps even disappointed) at how often it is the latter reason that is primary; but I guess that coming to acknowledge this and to appreciate it are all part what it is to be doing yoga.