Sometimes at the beginning of yoga class I ask students if they would be willing to share what originally brought them to yoga. So let me ask you: What brought you to your first class?
Perhaps it was ordinary curiosity that seduced you into trying yoga. Let’s face it - there are not a ton of other adult education classes where you get to turn yourself inside out and upside down!
But you won’t be surprised to learn that many students revealed their initial motivation for stepping onto a yoga mat to be the desire for more physical confidence and comfort. The changes they wanted span the full range of human movement potential. Some people wanted to strengthen their arms and others wanted to loosen their shoulders. Some people wanted to lose weight and others wanted to build muscle. One yogi’s goal was exactly what another yogi wanted to remove.
It turns out that a regular practice of yoga can meet all these requests. The great yoga master, B.K.S. Iyengar said, “Yoga is an ocean.” In other words, yoga has something for everyone! No matter what you hope to achieve through yoga, it can probably happen if you commit to showing up on your mat 2-3 times a week.
There are plenty of tools for measuring physical progress. You can check your goal of losing inches around your waist or gaining bulk in your biceps with your trusty tape measure. You can use home monitors to see if your cardio stamina and oxygen levels are where you want them. Your sleep tracker will tell you if you are snoring less and dreaming more and your bathroom scale will encourage you as you close in on your goal weight.
These tools are especially useful for keeping you motivated along the way to becoming more fit, strong and nimble. But it is also likely that while you begin experiencing some physical shifts, something else will start happening that is not measurable by external means.
When Mr. Iyengar was about 12 years old he was quite sickly. Concerned about his health, his mother took him to her brother, Krishnamacharya, the great yoga master who ran the Prince’s yoga Shala at the Mysore Palace in southern India. It was a last ditch effort to restore health and vitality to young Iyengar and through great, consistent effort, it worked. His commitment to yoga practice became the north star that guided him throughout the rest of his 98 years.
Mr. Iyengar mastered every asana known to humankind. He created a revolutionary method of teaching yoga. He figured out how to help ordinary people do yoga by inventing props such as blocks, blankets and straps. His work brought the practice of yoga to the whole world.
In 2005, when he was only 87 years old, he described his yoga practice this way: “I have spent the last 75 years of my life exploring what happens to my sternum when I press my big toe down.” In other words, what are the results of my actions?
This profound teaching tells us so much about yoga. The word, yoga, comes from the Sanskrit word, yuj, which is usually translated as union. This refers to a sense of body, breath and mind integration. In other words, yoga is about relationship, starting with your relationship with yourself.
When we become interested in our personal experience — the physical sensations arising in our body and the thoughts and emotions arising at the same time — then we are fully practicing yoga. This is how yoga practice evolves from something that you do to a conversation you are having between your body, breath and mind.
Try it right now. Press your big toe down into the floor. Did you feel a response in your sternum, the chest bone in the middle of your rib cage? Maybe you felt a sense of lift. Maybe you felt a shift in your breath. Maybe what you feel is an undefined but real connection between your toe and your sternum.
Now try this sitting on the floor. What happens?
Try it standing up.
In each position you will feel a different relationship: between down and up, between your toe and your chest, your body and your breath, your attention and your energy.
The statement “yoga is an ocean” can also be interpreted as yoga is so big that you will never be finished with it. You will not master every single asana, hang up your mat and take up golf. Even if you get thoroughly adept at handstands and fancy backbends there is always more to explore because it can be truly be said that in yoga the path is the goal.
How can you measure this kind of progress? Here are some markers:
Can you let go of comparing your practice to the person on the next mat, or even to your own practice yesterday? Every day is different and whatever you are feeling in body, mind and heart is fine and interesting.
When you have new or intense physical feelings, can you distinguish between pain and interesting sensation? If it is a painful feeling, then back off - this is the exception to the statement that whatever you are feeling is fine and interesting. Pain should not be part of your practice. The very first philosophical principle of yoga is ahimsa, which means non-harming of self and others.
Can you be radically inclusive toward your body? Can you love your legs and arms and everything in between, no matter what they can or can’t do today? Be gentle and curious about how your body unfolds today. Making friends with yourself is a huge benefit of yoga practice.
When you fall out of tree pose can you think of falling as part of the whole story of the pose? Look at some trees and you will see that they sway in the breeze and sometimes they even fall over. What can you learn from falling - was your mind straying, did you lose your focus, is one side of your body stronger or more stable today?
The other question I like to ask my students is why they have continued to practice yoga.
The answer is always different than why they started yoga. The practice has simply become part of who they are. They are people who like to get sweaty without stress, breathe deeply without drama, open their hearts to themselves as practice for opening to their friends and family. Their yoga really is practice — for the rest of their lives when they can reach instead of just stretch, and bend but not break.
About the Author: Cyndi Lee is the first female Western yoga teacher to fully integrate yoga asana and Tibetan Buddhism in her practice and teaching. Founder of NYC’s OM yoga Center (1998-2012), she is now an ordained Zen Buddhist Chaplain and primarily teaches Meditation Trainings and Buddhist retreats all over the world. She is the author of Yoga Body Buddha Mind and May I Be Happy. Her newest offering, the OM Online Meditation Sangha will be launching in February, 2023. Learn more at cyndilee.com