This evening I was reminded of why I practice yoga. Yes, I practice to stay in shape and stave off the general aches and pains of aging in a body that has been abused through decades of dancing, but there is also a deeper reason. Over years of practicing I have slowly begun to notice, and consciously shift, how I react and respond to different situations. For instance, when I am balancing on one leg and struggling to find my balance, especially if I felt strong and steady on the first side or am usually able to easily hold the pose, I get very frustrated with myself and my inner voice gets flat out mean. I berate myself, which makes me even more frustrated. I start to use my inability to balance on one leg as an excuse to beat myself up for all the things I have failed at in the past and tell myself I will never be able to accomplish the things I am already feeling trepidation about in my future. It is a very ugly spiral down to a dark, useless place. Guess what? My yoga mat was not the only place I beat myself up while struggling with something hard or new. My inner voice had gotten extremely skilled at saying mean things over the years.
Through regularly practicing yoga I observed myself slipping into self-berating mode over and over again. It was not helping me advance in my yoga practice and it was not helping me advance in my life. Slowly, very slowly, I began to observe how my initial reaction to hard poses, especially balancing poses, affected me. My breath would get stuck. Let me tell you now, holding your breath never makes a yoga pose easier. I would completely check out. It is nearly impossible to be fully present when you are telling yourself what a failure you are and trying to come up with concrete proof to back your theory. Slipping out of the present moment also does not make yoga poses easier. At what felt like a glacial pace I began to not only catch myself at the start of my berating, but I began to come back to the present moment and observe what exactly was going on within my body. I would remind myself to breathe. Surprise, surprise, the pose usually became easier with a calm and steady breath. I would observe where I was gripping my muscles or tensing up and try to relax. You guessed it, relaxing also helps yoga poses become easier. From there I could back off a little, make any alignment adjustments that needed to be made and try again, usually with far more success.
The more I started catching myself at the start of my self-berating sessions on my yoga mat the more I started noticing when I was slipping into that mode off my mat. This did not happen overnight. This did not happen in a few weeks or even a few months. It has been years. I had to experience over and over again, on my mat, that beating myself up was actually holding me back and hurting me. I was not getting better, in the moment or in the long run. I had to witness how my practice slowly shifted and how I was able to do difficult poses even on days when I was struggling with balance or not feeling strong by staying fully present and observing what was going on in my body and mind, as opposed to letting that mean inner voice get up on her high horse and yell away. The more I focused on exactly what was occurring the present moment the stronger and more confident I felt on my mat. Turns out, the same was true off my mat. I still slip into my old thought patterns all the time. The only difference is, now I catch myself and now I know what the outcome will most likely be. Yoga has allowed me to be more mindful of my reactions and responses and allowed me to explore new ways of being in a safe space.