Despite what you see on social media and the cover of magazines, being “good” at yoga has nothing to do with whether you can do a handstand or make any other specific shapes with your body. So if that’s not what it’s all about, what is it? I’m going to outline just a handful of alternative ways to view progress in yoga from a yin yoga perspective.
A big lesson from yin yoga is learning to understand and respect your own limits. This may initially start off as a physical lesson when we are taught that trying to push as far in yin yoga as we do in more active yang styles of yoga is not going to go well. Pushing too far often means we cannot relax the muscles and reach the fascia that we are trying to target. It also means we may get injured and we sometimes notice that we are in pain afterwards. So if you make the mistake of looking around the room in a yin yoga class and notice other people seem deeper into a pose than you, remember you really have no idea whether they are in a good position or not. But it is often our egos that show up at these times and make us want to do more and go further, especially if we have been someone who is used to striving in all areas of our lives. This means that in order to hold back enough to get the full benefit of the pose, we often have to have healthy boundaries with ourselves. We need to recognise that we might want to go further and that technically we may be able to go further but that this is not something that will be helpful for us in the long term. And when we practise this more and more, combined with the mindful awareness we develop of all our tricky and pleasant thoughts and feelings, we may learn to extend this healthy boundary setting with ourselves in other areas of our lives. Maybe we can start saying no to things we might like to do but don’t have capacity for. Maybe we can hold back from applying for every promotion opportunity that we previously felt we “should” go for but now are recognising that the extra demands would detract from our quality of life. Maybe we start to recognise that some of the pressure that we feel under to look and behave a certain way might be internal and that we can learn to notice the pressure without having to give in to it every time.
It is unfortunately very normal for most of us to pursue certain goals in life that are in conflict with the kind of person we would choose to be if we gave some time and space to considering what are values are. I don’t mean what we value in terms of stuff or achievements or the ways we value being treated by others but more the kinds of ways we would behave that feel true and meaningful. I sometimes feel attempts to do this in psychological therapy can miss the mark when we don’t have enough slowing down and connecting with sensation first. The kinds of values we might come up with can so often still be caught up with our ideas of who we should be because we are still making decisions from a threat based place. A therapeutic relationship and space can facilitate a sense of safety which will be enough for some people to connect to their values (or construct them) but others may need a longer period of mindfulness to connect with the most meaningful ideas that can be lost amongst the noise of everything else. We may think we value being healthy and want to work on this because we haven’t been able to keep up with a consistent exercise routine and feel bad about this. But what we may have not noticed is that the barrier to more exercise is being exhausted all the time and what we really need is more rest. Rest definitely fits into my idea of healthy behaviours but we don’t think of this on the spot when exploring our values usually. Yet when we slow down with a mindful activity such as a seated meditation practice or yin yoga, there is an opportunity to notice what stillness feels like and to listen to the parts of us that may have been ignored for years. And that is not usually going to happen in a one-off session, especially if it makes us feel very emotionally uncomfortable at first. It happens from repeated practice.
Balance in different life areas
The pursuit of one thing to a level of excellence often comes at the expense of other things that may matter to us in life. Connected with the above, when we start paying more attention to what we value, and can do this in a way that helps us feel the importance not just think about the importance, we may start to notice that sacrifices need to be made. We need to accept that doing more in areas of our life that are struggling will require doing less in other areas in order for this to be sustainable. It’s like choosing how to spend our limited funds. Unless you are one of the very wealthy few, you cannot buy all of the things you want. In the same way, we cannot do all of the things that might be good for us or desirable. So we have to choose. We might need to be slightly less of our own idea of a “good partner” in order to work on our health. Or we might need to be less focused on peak performance in order to be a better partner. No-one can tell you what the right or wrong answers are because they don’t exist. And the beauty of this is, we sometimes find that when we get more balance across different areas of our lives, there can be more synergy than we expected. Sometimes doing more to look after our own health and wellbeing can actually help us to be a better partner if we can be more present in conversations, be clearer about what we do and don’t want, communicate better and show the people we care about that if we don’t need to be perfect, they don’t either.
You may be thinking that this sounds like therapy, not yoga. And you would be right and wrong at the same time. People are sometimes surprised by the mix of my training across the two but they really are not as different as they might seem. They complement each other to allow us to do more of what matters. Not everyone needs therapy and not everyone needs a physical yoga practice. Yoga and wider meditation practices come from Eastern philosophy. It has been stripped down in the way it is usually taught in the West, repackaged and sold for profit in various forms, including the types of psychological therapies that I really believe in. That does not make them bad or invaluable but it is important that we recognise where some of the most helpful tools we have came from and that we start to value them more in their various forms.
I’m not sure if I can claim to be good at yoga but I try to connect with my values and live my life in a way that means I keep redirecting myself to what matters each time I go off track a bit. I certainly don’t do it perfectly but it does make my heart sing every time a colleague or trainee I am supervising tells me that they have learned about healthy boundaries from me. Being a good role model matters to me. I care for myself because I matter and I care for myself without apology so that you can learn that this is okay too.