I’ve been doing “gym yoga” for years. I became more flexible, more relaxed…I even got some tricep definition from all those chaturangas. But I was completely missing the point.
I’m thankful that yoga has come down from the monasteries of Nepal and into the L.A. Fitness’s of Middle America, but its accessibility has led to a inevitable watering-down of the ancient philosophy. So listen up. You’re doing yoga wrong. I’ve been doing it wrong for five years myself. But after attending Wanderlust in Aspen, CO, doing six hours of yoga a day with the most renowned teachers in the country, my eyes were finally opened.
Here was my light bulb moment: I was lying flat on my face, panting, feeling the mat grain sink into my cheek. I was crying. “Why are you crying in yoga? You’re ridiculous.” I told myself. The problem was crow pose. The whole class was getting it, so why couldn’t I? I looked around the room and saw every shape, size, and gender nailing bakasana and pada bakasana and even eka pada galavasana.
I looked over at a hot shirtless dude doing scorpion and snorted. I felt inadequate and weak. And that’s when the voice of Schuyler Grant came back to me: “It’s less about doing yoga, and more about yoga doing you.” I took a deep breath, “Stop doing yoga, and let yoga do you,” I repeated. In that moment yoga was teaching me to fall, to fail, to feel the texture of frustration. “Tighten your bandhas!” Jenn Chiarelli called from the teacher platform. So I got up, held back angry tears, and tried again.
That moment was unglamorous and inglorious. I never really achieved crow. But it wasn’t about the pose, it was about what the pose taught me. And that was my biggest takeaway. It’s not about “achieving” the pose— it’s about how the pose changes you, challenges you, and makes you feel afterward. Crow pose made me feel uncomfortable and inferior. It also showed me what a waste of energy it is to compare myself to others. It taught me how to channel frustration into motivation. It taught me not to judge myself — even if it left me crumpled and ugly-crying in the middle of class.
Poses I couldn’t “get” have taught me way more than the poses I nail. As a weight lifter and bike activist and ex-ballet dancer I went into yoga all hyper confident, like, Pssh, quad strength? Got it. Flexibility? Bring it on, forward bends. Yeah, not for long. I’ve been deeply humbled by the power and breadth of the asanas. And most importantly, began to accept and respect my body’s idiosyncrasies.
Whether you’re a seasoned gym yogi or a vinyasa beginner, take my advice: shift your perspective, and stop doing yoga wrong:
Bodies Are Asymmetrical. And That’s Okay.
Stop striving for perfection in the pose. Use the pose to get to know your body.
I’ve learned that my right side is shorter and tighter. My toes are calloused and knobby. My wrists are weak and inflamed. My left ankle is super wobbly. But I’ve stopped seeing these as weaknesses, and now see them as individualities. They tell a story — of the time I sprained my ankle in aerobics class, danced en point for five years, developed carpal tunnel from laptop keyboards. They’re what makes my body mine. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
It’s Not About the Pose
Like many yogis have said, the pose is unimportant. It’s what you learn about yourself, and the different places the movement takes you in your mind and body (frustration, triumph; length, softness) that really matters.
You’ve Got to Love the “Doing”
Yoga is a practice. Literally. Do it because you like doing it, not for any other outcome. Don’t be results-driven; it’s about the process.
If you were only into soccer because you liked playing in the championship, then every season game would be a bore. Instead, you play soccer because you love the game, the camaraderie, the drills, the growth and strength you develop along the way. Yoga is like that…like soccer practice for napping. (Kidding.)
After the Pose Is Just as Important as Being in the Pose
Ever taken Yin (aka super-slow-pace yoga)? I’d never tried it because my gym mindset scoffed, “That won’t burn enough calories!” Then I took Joe Barnett’s class and it changed everything. His velvet voice coached us to “observe the change in the body…don’t resist. Instead of holding the pose, let the pose hold you…” In shavasana, he cooed, “Feel the ache, observe how it melts away, feel how your muscle fibers have changed.”
Now take it further. How did that eight-hour flight feel? That hug with a friend? How has your energy changed since you ate that kale salad? How is that different from eating a double cheeseburger? Take a moment to “observe the change” more often in your day. Taking note of how different social interactions, stressors, or foods affect you will help inform your decisions on what feels good, what makes you happy, and what you want more (or less) of in your life. (Spoiler: for me it’s more hugs and kale, fewer Combo #3s).
It’s Not a Gym Class
Yes, yoga is a genre of exercise, but don’t treat it like a gym class. Sweat, stretch, and strengthen — but don’t focus on the reps or the caloric burn. Instead, do yoga to strengthen your mind, sharpen your focus, and raise your awareness. Those muscles are equally important to tone and develop.
It Doesn’t Have to Be an Hour
I know it sounds cheesy, but yoga is a state of mind. You can do it anywhere. So don’t limit yourself to practicing exclusively at the studio. You can do it for one minute in traffic. You can do it for 10 minutes in your bedroom.If going to yoga class at a studio is a routine you need (like I do), then use that accountability to stay dedicated. But also know if you’re limited (financially, geographically, etc) not to let those parameters hold you back. Find yoga online, at community centers, libraries, on podcasts, and on phone apps.
Stop comparing yourself; every body is different. You aren’t competing with anyone. Learn it on the mat, then take it further. Stop reading “30 Millionaires Under 30” articles. Stop dreading your high school reunion. Stop measuring your success by other people’s standards. This is your life and your body. Create your own standards and don’t compare yourself against anything other than how far you’ve come.
What advice has changed your yoga outlook? I’m still very much an amateur — please share what’s helped along your journey!
[this piece originally appeared on medium.com]