Most of us know “exercise” isn’t exactly the point of stepping onto a yoga mat (although it’s an excellent side effect).
But, what IS the reason we show up over and over again, then?
Yoga definitely registers high on the self care matrix for most people…but why?
Most yoga practices involve mindful movement – some slow, others flowing, and some downright intense – but they all have this in common: they draw you into yourself to feel the entirety of your own experience in any given moment.
This is probably the hardest part of yoga: being face to face with your present-tense experience with very little access to your go-to vices for self-preservation, validation, or escape.
It’s also kind of the point.
We’ve all felt the impulse to cry out or run away from a posture – or have suddenly found ourselves fixated on lots of things we need to do the moment our quads begin to burn and tremble in a pose (aka: picking the lint off of our mat or watching the dust bunny roll past our mat with awe or annoyance).
Some of us will have also felt shame for wanting to soften out of a posture and stayed anyway. Some have perhaps experienced a reaction of hyper-compliance causing us to stay in a posture, overriding an experience of pain or extremis to “be good” and do the posture “right,” even at the detriment of our own well-being.
But, overriding our needs or distracting from what’s uncomfortable isn’t actually what the practice is endeavoring to teach us.
Rather, our yoga practice is helping us to notice the reactive ways we behave and think when we’re struggling to be with the reality of a moment.
And with that awareness, our yoga practice can also then help us to connect with new ways of responding to a perception of discomfort that allow us to shift our experience to one that is empowering, safe, and grounded without changing the actual experience at all!
There’s a difference between practicing yoga and performing yoga.
When you’re performing yoga, you execute the movements and force your body into shapes for awhile, and come away feeling physically stronger or more open, or maybe both. Or maybe nothing but a sense of accomplishment.
There’s a subtle and important shift that can happen when practicing yoga becomes your intention.
When you practice yoga, you witness yourself and your experience and your reactions to your experience as you move and breathe.
You notice your own distractions.
(Huh, there I go picking up lint again…)
You notice your own self judgments.
(Definitely just called myself lazy again…)
And you notice the clunkier parts of your body, too.
(Oh wow, my right hip is feeling really sticky today.)
When self-witness is the leading focus of your yoga practice, you learn a lot about how you think and act in the rest of your life. You start to see your impulses and patterns, your inner thought world begins to reveal itself more clearly, and your real world distractions and vices start to become more obvious, too.
This is great news – not so you can judge those things and put a moratorium on them, but rather to enable you to start to noticing yourself in the act of distracting so you can a) get curious about what you’re protecting yourself from and b) try out new, empowering ways of responding and supporting yourself instead.
Sheltering in place can feel a bit like standing in side-warrior with no end in sight. Bringing self-observation into our days may at first be startling (remember, no judging, just observing!) but the information you’ll notice is invaluable.
What can you notice about yourself today?
What are the ways you’re ignoring your needs and what are you doing instead?
What might happen if you take a few minutes right now to check in with yourself, as if from the middle of a really long bridge pose, and answer these questions honestly:
1. What small shifts might make this easier for me?
In bridge pose, that might look like pressing your feet more firmly into the earthy or elongating your neck or lifting your sternum. Both of these will generate more support and stability from the earth while allowing deeper engagement from your adductors and core. Viola! Easier!
In shelter-in-place life, that might look like drinking a glass of water, getting outside for a socially distanced walk, or turning off the news for awhile.
2. Is there anything I’m doing that is making this harder for me?
In bridge pose, that might look like holding your breath or lifting your hips higher than is available for your body at the moment. Of course, holding your breath and going deeper into the pose than your body feels supported to do will make bridge feel unnecessarily hard!
In shelter-in-place life, that might look like staying up really late, or maybe holding yourself to a standard of hyper-productivity every day. Indeed, not getting enough sleep and staying over busy with unrealistic expectations will definitely make this harder.
3. What additional support might make it possible for me to stay with this experience a bit longer?
In bridge pose, this might look like sliding a block under your hips for a more supported experience or even putting a block between your knees to activate adductor engagement for newfound strength. As always, anchoring your posture with slow deep breathing makes a world of difference too.
In shelter-in-place life, this could look like calling a friend who’s a good listener, writing a slew of anxious thoughts into the pages of a journal at bedtime, taking time to do something you love every day, or even setting up a telehealth appointment with your therapist. Let’s be honest, why choose-these are all supports that can make this experience easier to navigate and sustain.
So why does it matter, in the end?
Every time you come toward your yoga – and your life – with a willingness to practice self-observation without judgement, it helps you:
✔️drop out of your ego’s reactivity patterns
✔️notice where shame and guilt is running the show
✔️discern your actual preferences from your trauma-responses
✔️connect with the mental, physical and spiritual needs of yourself without all the noise between you and your truth.
From this place of witnessing yourself and learning how to respond intentionally to an experience (in regular life, shelter in place life, and in yoga) and adjust your response from moment to moment according to your needs and preferences allows you to feel empowered, supported, and safe, come what may.
This cultivates the ability not only to create an experience of stillness within, but with practice, to feel safe being with that stillness.
Cultivating the ability to be with stillness is activism. It means you’re developing the ability to connect with empowerment, support, safety, no matter what challenges come your way. It means you’re practicing the art of self-resourcing and accessing resources available around you, too.
The witness, discernment, and ability to little by little response with intention to what you notice while practicing pigeon posture translates to a newfound ability to self-witness, discern, and take action on behalf of yourself in your daily life, too. This does not come naturally to most of us, hence: the practice.
This is why we practice: to create a lived experience of empowerment, support and safety – to bring ourselves more fully alive and present for the ride of life.
None of this promises we will be without experiences of suffering, challenges, discomfort or hardship.
The more we practice self-observation without judgment, the more stillness we connect with and receive internally, the more our challenging experiences in life become safe to navigate and resources we preciously didn’t have access to become accessible.