Growing Through Stepping Back

As I mentioned in my last couple of posts, my theme for this month is Growing. One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is my growth while going through yoga teacher training. Of course, my physical practice grew - in my knowledge of the poses, teaching techniques, how to adjust and assist, what to look for in my own body when practicing - as well as the amount of times per week I was physically practicing yoga. While my physical practice and knowledge expanded in the way I expected, I found that my internal practice grew in the opposite manner - by learning to step back. To clarify, I don’t mean physically stepping back, as in into a lunge or Warrior pose (though there was plenty of that too!). I mean consciously pausing before going into a pose, or even a class, and asking myself “what would serve me best here?”

Throughout my youth, teenage years, and college, I was involved in competitive gymnastics. I was known as the team member that would generally just “go for things”, even if I more or less didn’t have a chance of landing it properly (the number of times I landed almost on my head or straddled the beam was startling). I loved challenging myself to do the toughest skills possible. I physically loved flipping around and I often felt more comfortable upside down than right side up. And this served me really well in competitive gymnastics, where you were awarded more points for more difficult skills, and more points meant higher scores, which meant placing higher in competition, qualifying to select competitions like State or Regional Championships, and qualifying to the next level. In addition, I was self-competitive (still am) and I always aimed to beat my own best, so even without all of the scoring and qualifying, I probably would have still gone for the most difficult skills.

So when I started doing yoga, I was one of those people that always pushed myself to go into the “most difficult” version of the pose, giving myself the most physically challenging practice I could. If there was an option to flow or stay in down dog, I flowed. If there was an option to bind in a pose, I went for the bind. I went into wheel instead of bridge or supported bridge even if my back was like “hey there lady, go easy on me today would ya?!” It wasn’t because I was trying to show off or anything like that. It’s what I knew. It’s how I’d been trained. It’s how I had internally trained myself. Physical activities have always been a strong point for me, and so I pushed myself to physically challenge myself as much as possible.  

But as I moved through yoga teacher training, and my practice expanded in all directions (mentally, emotionally, spiritually, as well as physically), I noticed something - that urge to push myself to the limit tapered. I still challenged myself, but the challenge shifted a bit - instead of “can I get into the most challenging version of this pose”, it more often became asking myself “what would really benefit me most today?”, and challenging myself to stay with that answer, even if meant resting in child’s pose while others were going through a flow, or staying in supported bridge instead of going into wheel.  The challenge wasn’t always about what would physically serve me best, either. Often, it was the mental aspect. I needed to pause and breathe to help create inner space. Other times, I chose based on my energy level. Certain poses, like back bends, can be especially energizing. So if I needed more energy, I may go into a deeper back bend - not because it was physically more challenging, but because that energy served me in that moment (i.e. 6AM classes when I had a full work day ahead of me). If I did not want to ramp up my energy, say, in a later evening class where I’d be going to bed shortly after getting home, I chose something more restorative or supportive. I still love doing inversions (I really do love being upside down) but I do them because they feel weightless to me, like the stress of life is being literally flipped on it’s head, and help me mentally - not because of the difficulty level. And even here, I always ask which version of an inversion serves me best, before I take it (legs up the wall equals awesome inversion option!).

What I found, in taking this pause, was that my yoga practice grew. Not specifically in the physical sense, though it did help my joints and muscles and any injuries recover more fully, but my overall yoga practice. My practice that extends far beyond the mat. I learned that I don’t have to constantly push myself to the limit. That sometimes, what I need - my body, my heart, my mind, my soul - is to take a breather, to be kind to my body, my mind, myself, to know that even if I can technically do something, it might not be what serves me best. And as I’ve continued to practice this in my physical practice, I’ve noticed it in other areas too. I’m working on being kinder to myself, setting boundaries where needed, on listening to my intuition and my inner knowledge, and focusing on what it’s telling me in this moment. And for me, this, truly, is what yoga is all about.

Sometimes my left knee hurts in tree pose (Vrksasana) because I don’t have full flexion there. So I frequently now opt to keep my leg lower instead of forcing myself into it.   Photo credit:    Aly Gaul   .

Sometimes my left knee hurts in tree pose (Vrksasana) because I don’t have full flexion there. So I frequently now opt to keep my leg lower instead of forcing myself into it.

Photo credit: Aly Gaul.