Poses, or Shapes?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been a little anxious about the start of teacher training. The panic has formed a predictable pattern. “I’m not ______ enough!” my mind wails. As my arms burn in chaturanga, my tripod handstand falls like a heap of rocks to the floor, or my pelvis seems a mile above the mat in pigeon pose, I feel unprepared. I chide myself for not pushing more in my home practice, or reserving more free time for public classes. I imagine myself in child’s pose, peering underneath my armpit at the contortionists who will inevitably comprise the entirety of my classmates, fiercely beautiful people who will compassionately ignore my rectangle of mediocrity on the perimeter of the room. This is an awful thought. I counter it with one of my favorite Indra Devi quotes: “Yoga is a way to freedom. By its constant practice, we can free ourselves from fear, anguish, and loneliness.” The word freedom sets me straight. Freedom does not include worrying about whether shaking in a crescent lunge makes you look weak, or if your peers think your yoga pants have too much cat hair on them (they slept in my gym bag, I swear!). I try to scrub the negativity from my predictions and go back to the only thing that matters–to keep practicing.

I’m reminded that even for master yoga teachers, bodies are in flux more than they are constant. Progress in flexibility and strength is often cyclical, rather than linear. These realities are supported in yoga by knowledge of the poses. A sustainable, lifelong yoga practice relies on knowledge of the articulation in the poses–beyond the shapes they make. Following the intention of a posture, instead of pushing too hard into a shape, can save a yogi from injury, burnout, and possibly even envy of other practitioners. This is true both as a beginner, and especially when developing more advanced poses. I constantly have to check my ego as I venture into challenging poses, and follow the internal messages of the posture rather than trying to mimic a shape. Going too deeply into a pose that I’m not prepared for can be damaging to the joints, such as forcing a pigeon pose without a block or blanket and sacrificing my knee, or ignoring a wrist sensitivity and going into upward-facing dog when I’d be better off in cobra to start. I’ve found that the best way for me to determine how deeply to attempt a pose is to check how the rest of my form is affected, typically assessing what I’m doing with my knees, shoulders, abdominal wall, and pelvis. For me, full lizard pose can be difficult, and I have found, at various times, my back knee dropping or my front knee extended too far over the ankle, my back rounded against the discomfort, my belly sagging, or my shoulders scrunched up to my ears with a tense neck. Instead of pursuing the shape, I accept my body’s messages and assist myself with a block under my forearms, or push up to the modification on my hands. I’ll get to the floor eventually, and I won’t have hurt myself along the way.

As I prepare for teacher training, I remind myself that consistency is more important than mastery, and most importantly, that mastery is not a fixed state. The humility to quietly continue on with a practice is required from all levels. This is especially true as we age, experience setbacks and changes, and even grow in flexibility; paying attention to the energy of the poses allows us to tailor our flow to who we are today, with an effort towards who we’d like to become.

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