Why do you practice yoga? Is it for the exercise? for the relaxation? for the mental clarity that can come from releasing physical blocks? While most of us start out attracted to the physical aspect of yoga, the practice of yoga is integrative. It reaches out to all of us: body, mind and spirit. As we develop a level of comfort with the physical experience, there is room to explore what is going on with your thinking mind and your spiritual sensibilities.
This deeper exploration in your yoga practice can help emotions surface and open the possibility for insight. Some of these insights will relate to experiences on your mat, others to those off. Either way, your mat can be a safe place to practice working with your emotions. As a teacher, it is entirely appropriate to recognize this and include coaching students toward looking at what comes up.
One emotion I often run into is fear. I might hold back for fear of falling out of a pose. I might have anxiety about needing to come out of a pose early, thinking this will make me look weak. Then there is the popular fear of hurting myself. My list is longer, yours might be too.
I’m actually writing this blog post while on a yoga retreat at Kripalu. I’m getting exposure to many different teachers and a different style of yoga than I am used to practicing. In some classes, I feel more like a beginner. One teacher had us working in the Bakasana (crow) arm-balance. If students found the traditional pose accessible, we were guided to challenge ourselves until we found something we couldn’t do in the posture. I remember thinking ‘No thanks, I’m good right here in plain old crow’. I was afraid of falling on my face and everyone in the room seeing me fall out.’ After all, I’m a yoga teacher. Falling out would, in some distorted universe, lessen my credibility as a teacher, right? Then he said (paraphrasing), ‘Do something that makes you fall out of the pose. Notice how you react to falling. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we react.’ He was instructing us to fall?! That was a novel idea to me and it felt lighthearted, so I went for it. My attempt at eka pada bakasana (one-legged crow) resulted in me falling into a heap – one shin on the floor, the other in my armpit. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty, but I didn’t care. I was laughing. In the span of 20 or so breaths, I stopped being afraid and found joy in confronting the fear.
Now I’m not recommending this approach for every pose. It would be too dangerous for handstand and headstand, but mindfully falling out of poses like Bakasana, Vrksasana (tree) and others can retrain our minds to react positively in fearful circumstances. This retraining persists off your mat. The emotional growth is yours to keep.
‘Where fear is, happiness is not’, Seneca, Roman philosopher