Why being 'good' at yoga can mean you're actually bad at it
I’ve been practicing yoga for nearly 10 years and teaching since 2015, and in the last three years I’ve lost count of the times I stood at the front of a class and said something like, “observe without judgement”, or “be present, don’t have any expectations” or my favourite - “just breathe”. Now I sit writing this, having recently returned to yoga after a long illness, and I question if I was applying these lessons to my own practice. Yes I was using ujjayi breath and engaging my bandhas but somewhere along the way I definitely lost the part about observing without judgement. In fact I know exactly at what point it happened – when I started to think that I was getting good.
When I went travelling last year I’d been practicing regularly and consistently for a long time, and the truth is I felt proud of the asanas I’d started to achieve. Even this language – pride, achievement - reveals a lot about my frame of mind at the time. I felt like I was becoming one of those people that you see in class and think “ooh she’s good” – whatever that means. Basically my ego was pretty invested in this whole yoga thing. Fast forward 6 weeks and I was in a Thai hospital with dengue fever, unable to stand on my feet let alone my hands. It was about 3 months before I was strong enough to start practicing again (at least anything that resembled Vinyasa) and the first time I tried a flowing sequence I just sat and cried. All I could think was “I’m so rubbish at this now”, I felt weak and tired and inflexible, and like maybe yoga wasn’t for me anymore. Then it dawned on me – this is exactly what yoga is for! I’d been telling all my beautiful yogis to let go of their expectations and to be grateful for their bodies exactly as they were, and I was doing the opposite. I decided to go back to class the following week, but with a totally different mindset.
Now, that was much easier said than done, and I found myself feeling inadequate, embarrassed and frustrated about 50 times in those first weeks. But just as we become aware of our mind’s wandering during meditation and have to ‘come back’ to our breath, I started getting better at realising that I was having a go at myself and paying less attention. I thought this would be a brilliant opportunity to tap back into the more emotional and spiritual aspects of my practice (ironically the reason I started in the first place) and for the first time in a long time I chose all of the easiest versions of postures, and even rested in child’s pose several times per class, choosing instead to be really mindful of every movement, to reconnect to my poor broken body and experience the practice exactly as it was, rather than how I thought it should be.
I’ve been back at it for about 3 months now and I’m happy to say that I do feel a lot stronger already. But much more importantly I have remembered what it’s all about, not just as a person who practices yoga but as a teacher too. In a way I’m grateful for going through that rubbish few months, because I’m sure it’s made me a better teacher. I’d definitely got to the point where I’d forgotten just how hard a ‘simple’ posture can be, and that’s dangerous for anyone who is supposed to be guiding and supporting people in a safe space. Only a few months ago downward facing dog HURT – even after a few seconds my arms shook and my hamstrings burned. So if someone comes to my class and looks like they’re finding that posture challenging, I totally get it! I mean, I literally remember feeling that way and know how unhelpful it would have been to have a teacher who just expected me to get on with it. That’s where, I think, teachers need to strike a balance between encouragement and kindness. There is absolutely a place for working yogis hard and proving that they can achieve things that they didn’t think they could; there is also a place for seeing that someone is struggling and offering a gentle adjustment, or even making a joke to lighten the mood and remind everyone not to take it too seriously.
So, I suppose that’s a very long winded way of saying I’m back! And I’m excited to work with some newbies, as well as the lovely yogis I’ve taught before.