Often, my newer students come into class with disclaimers: “‘I’m here, but…” or, “I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do tonight…” they start, sometimes with a shamefaced look, “because I’m just really tired,” or, “Something’s going on with my left wrist,” or “I tweaked something in my back,” or “I’m still recovering from this cold I had last week.”
I think most of my regulars know me (and our studio) well enough by now to know what I’m going to say. It’s okay. I’m glad you’re here. You can do as much or as little as you want, and if you need to lie down for the next 90 minutes, nobody else minds a bit. You don’t need to apologize for the state of your body.
During class itself, as I observe our students, I can tick off the issues mentally: this one has tendonitis, that one a neck issue, she’s going through a hard time with her family, another one is suffering from almost crippling anxiety, there’s a foot issue in the front row and an ankle problem behind her. My friend in the back can’t raise his arms above his head or support weight in his shoulder. In other words, we’re all kind of messed up in some way. Or maybe, better said: our bodies function on a spectrum of change, and it’s pretty rare that any of us are in peak athletic form. I think that’s pretty average for the general population.
What’s not so “average” is that in this group, we’re learning to be okay with this. Throughout the practice, my students have learned to modify for themselves. So it might look a little bit like controlled chaos (are we all even in the same yoga class?!)– but we’re learning, together, that we can all do yoga and it doesn’t need to look the same.
In my early yoga years, I was a slave to my practice. I struggled to force my body into shapes– binds, backbends, balances– despite the messages of pain that my body was giving me. I practiced whether I was sick or tired. I never allowed myself a day off or an “easy” day.
This worked pretty well for a few years. My body adapted and compensated- I hyperextended some joints (developing a chronic elbow issue), aggravated an existing lumbar issue, and learned to push through the pain to achieve an end goal. I allowed teachers to push and pull me into poses that my body was begging me not to do. I had a beautiful yoga practice, strong, fluid, graceful, and a body that was crying out in pain and neglect.
I recognized that this wasn’t working when my body began to give out on me. I was exhausted all the time, unable to walk up a flight of stairs without resting. My muscles no longer responded to my commands. I couldn’t go on. “If my yoga practice were my spouse,” I said to a friend, “someone would have called the police by now for domestic abuse.” I simply couldn’t do what I had done before, and had to modify my practice. At first I felt apologetic, and ashamed. Like my students, I wanted to explain, justify, what I was doing.
So many vinyasa yoga classes speak contradictory messages. We verbalize self-acceptance, self-love, encourage compassion. And yet the unspoken message is push yourself a little further. It’s not okay to rest. Intricate sequences without pause, countless chatturangas, and no options given to modify. Our culture (and by osmosis, our yoga culture) values hard work, discipline. How do you know you did a good job? It hurts. How do you know it was a good yoga class? You feel a sense of relief when the effort ceases and you can relax.
This was how I taught for many years. As my own practice changed and I could no longer ignore my body, I found that my teaching had to change. I don’t want my students to hurt, or collapse, or ignore the signs that their bodies are giving them. I want them to know that it’s okay to have an injury and you can still practice mindfully. That some days are strong practice days, and other days are for nourishing and restoring. This is a truly mature yoga practice- working with the body you have, rather than forcing your body to work beyond its capacities or resources.
It makes my heart happy when I see our yogis modifying their practice. During a vinyasa, for example, some students will skip it and take dog or child’s pose. Others take cat-cow, or do cobra pose, or locust. Some will do extra chatturangas or practice a handstand. I do my best to create a community where students know what the options are, how they can modify, and that they are always encouraged to engage in inquiry and dialogue with their body.
After a while, when students come in the door, they don’t need to apologize or disclaim their practice anymore. There’s a confidence that comes from understanding that our body is not an object to be used but a source of strength and vitality, which requires deep listening and nourishment in order to be our thriving partner on our mat and in our lives. As we learn use our energy and our bodies skillfully, we become more available to ourselves and others, and our kindheartedness can encourage others to do the same.