Whenever I teach a room full of beginners, I start the class by telling them to focus on their mat, to connect and coordinate my verbal instruction with their body, and to keep their gaze from wandering towards other practitioners. I do this not only to reinforce a student’s listening skills and body awareness, but also to remind them that yoga is an internal practice as much as it is a physical one. If there is anything or anyone that you should be looking at, or talking to, or listening to (as much as your teacher), it is yourself.
When I first started yoga, I couldn’t help but look across the room and watch my fellow students. At that time, I had no physical coordination whatsoever, and so when a teacher told me to lift my arms towards the ceiling – I trusted others more than myself. Eventually, as I became stronger and more flexible, I was able to break away from this habit. But eventually, I also developed a bigger ego. I stopped caring about how other people looked like, and started caring about how they looked at me.
And so, when a teacher gave options—a half-split or a full split, for example—I would pick the latter, because I wanted the challenge and wanted to prove to the other ten or twenty people in the room that I was just as good as them, or even better. And perhaps I wanted to prove to myself that I was good enough to be in an open level class, and not a foundations class.
I did not realize this was wrong, of course, until I began pushing myself to the limit and injured my hips. My very open and flexible hips (which I was very proud of), had suddenly tightened and inflamed, and my pelvis had slightly rotated. I was in very acute pain, and could not walk without limping. It did not help that I have a history of ankle sprains (in both ankles), long before I even started practicing yoga.
It was a humbling experience, and I still remember having to go to several physical therapy sessions and stopping yoga for about a month. And returning to the practice, I felt as though I had to relearn my body all over again. I stopped doing deep hip-openers. Single pigeon pose, for example, now causes me deep discomfort. I began building a relationship with yoga props to support me during different postures, and moved through vinyasas with more caution and awareness. This experience with pain and injury truly prompted me to converse with myself during practice, to actually listen to my body, and to respect my limits as much as celebrate my strengths.
In times of rest and recovery, I started to read more about yoga philosophy—and this was around the time I was studying to be a teacher. I learned of the concept ahimsa, which means “non-violence” or “compassion,” and is a key virtue in the practice of yoga. Ahimsa if taken in the traditional sense, entails non-violence to all living things—including animals (I myself am not vegetarian). Nonetheless, I’d like to touch on ahimsa as compassion.
Compassion is sometimes used interchangeably with empathy—to “feel” for another, to internalize their grief and pain as if it were yours, and to act on this feeling. I feel as though it is easy to feel compassion for a friend, or, as a teacher, for a student. It is harder, I think, to feel compassion for yourself. To look at yourself as if you were somebody you love or care about, and to take measures towards healing, and safety, and comfort.
My body is not the same as it was before, in the sense that I cannot do some yoga postures without feeling pain or discomfort in certain parts of my body. Sometimes I chastise myself, wishing that my body were perfectly strong. But I catch my thoughts and remind myself that there is strength in humility, in accepting your imperfections, in finding the balance among challenging yourself, taking risks and embracing safety, to be able to look at yourself the way you would look at a loved one and finally say “I love you. I do not want to hurt you.”
Whenever I teach any class—beginners, intermediate, advanced practitioners—I remind them one of thing: to listen to your body. And that may entail skipping an entire vinyasa, or taking a child’s pose in between. After all, to listen to your body is a practice of ahimsa. To finally have a conversation with yourself, I believe, is the true practice of yoga.