When I teach a yoga asana class, students show up with all different abilities, body types, learning styles, strengths and limitations. The challenge, as an instructor, is to build a class where everyone is challenged in the same way without feeling overwhelmed. As a student, the challenge is to only take on what is possible and not compare yourself to others in the room. Be in your body and keep your eyes on your own mat; the only person judging your limitations is you (and even you don't need to be doing that).
Step #1: Listen to your body and notice.
Are you panting or can you control your breathing while doing what you are doing? Are you holding your breath? Are you feeling pain or just the sensation of muscles working or stretching? Is your mind racing or are your thoughts more controlled and inquisitive? Your body holds all the answers, you just need to learn to speak its language. Ideally, no matter what your body is doing, your breath is controlled, moving smoothly and evenly, there is no sharp pain and you feel in control. For more on this, see How to Know Your Limits in a Yoga Class.
Step #2: Respond appropriately.
Once you've listened and your body has told you "you're fine, continue on," or "you can go deeper/farther," or "time to back off," respond to that message. Practice yoga with the body that you have today, not that of your neighbor or even your body yesterday. Every day, every moment is a new opportunity to check in with yourself and see if all is good. If your breath gets short, choppy and erratic, back off; rest, reset and come back to the practice in control. Injury happens when we push ourselves beyond our capabilities. If everyone in the class is standing on their hands and you don't feel ready, take Downward Dog. If everyone is side bending their Tree Pose and you are struggling to balance, just stay upright; fall if you need to. If everyone is doing bridge pose and you feel like going up into Wheel, go for it! The great thing about yoga is that it is a "non-competitive sport," where resting is okay, pushing yourself appropriately is okay, doing exactly what the teacher instructs is okay, modifying the practice to suit you is okay. You have permission to take make the practice more or less challenging according to how you feel on any given day. Today you might be raring to go, ready to sweat and work hard; tomorrow you might need to take things a little slower, drop into Child's Pose more often than is instructed. Both are completely fine and allowed. The key is to listen to what your body, not your mind/ego, is telling you. Unfortunately the ego is usually the louder voice in your mind telling you "I can't do this" or "she's doing it, I can too" or "when will this end?!" The body is sensation and when you tune into the sensation of your body, you get our of your mind and things get quiet. Calm. Still. Centered. Relaxed. Even in challenging poses. These are some of the other benefits of practicing yoga.
Step #3: Take your practice off the mat.
Why do we practice yoga? So that we can learn how to move through our lives more peacefully, more lovingly, more in control of our body and mind. The challenge is taking this knowledge off the mat and into our world. Once you can hold Warrior 2 without crying, maybe you can also tolerate your child having a tantrum at the supermarket, responding with compassion for your child rather than worrying about what everyone else may be thinking. Maybe you can tolerate the discomfort of your child falling apart because you learned how not to fall apart. Dealing with challenging clients or co-workers in your life might be like dealing with poses you don't like (the ones you hate are the ones you need the most...). If you can learn to accept that these people will be in your life in some capacity, find your breath and see if you can meet them with compassion. Their bad behavior is not about you, even if they take it out on you. Maybe you can respond, instead of react by taking a few breaths, accepting that this interaction is happening and then do something. Answer their question mindfully, tell them that you don't like being yelled at but that you would be happy to calmly discuss the problem, walk away, or maybe some other possibility. You might be having a bad day where everything goes wrong, you are stressed, exhausted, hungry, you know those days. Can you find compassion for yourself? You don't have to be perfect, you can ask for help, you can honor how you feel and do the best you can. Maybe you go to bed early with the house still a mess or the dishes or laundry undone or the assignment incomplete. Tomorrow will come when you can meet whatever is looming with a fresh body and mind. Take a do-over and let it be okay.
The point is, difficulty happens, stress happens, life happens. Yoga teaches us to honor where we are and meet ourselves at that point. By doing that we can respond to challenges in a way that feels authentic, and doesn't leave us feeling regret. How can you do that? Connect to the lessons you learned on your mat.
Janine L. Agoglia has been teaching Vinyasa yoga since 1998. Her yoga journey started in 1995 with Iyengar Yoga and she discovered Vinyasa yoga in 1997. The combination of breath with proper body alignment is what fuels Janine's practice and the classes that she teaches. She believes that yoga should be safe as well as challenging, creative and fun. She always emphasizes proper alignment within the flow, as well as focus, breath and humor to help students find the balance between strength and ease. Deepening one’s physical awareness helps one strengthen his/her spiritual awareness and mind-body connection. Janine loves being able to help people deepen their own practices, finding yoga in everyday life, on and off the mat. Her DVD, “Vinyasa Yoga for Regular People” is available for purchase at the front desk at Lumina Mind Body Studios in Wayland, MA.
In addition to being the Co-Director of Yoga and teaching yoga classes at Lumina Mind Body Studios Janine is also a Licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist who practices at Integrative Therapeutics in Natick, MA.