I’m not exactly a poetry buff (shocking I know) but I do have a favorite poem that moves me every time I read it called “Autobiography in FiveShort Chapters” by Portia Nelson. It was introduced to me by my teacher James Brown during my 200 Hour Training, and it was then that I had one of the biggest ‘AH-HA‘ moment I’d had to date. I now read it in every teacher training I lead during the philosophy discussions as an illustration of what “practice” really means. In our culture, the practice of yoga can sometimes leave students missing the “aim” of their practice.
Often I hear instructors tell their students “it’s not about the poses,” which falls short of capturing what the practice really IS about and why we do these poses. This poem clears the fog and explains what we really should be doing when we step on our mats. One of the simplest ways I can explain this is a pattern that happens in class while I’m teaching. I encourage students to really pay attention to exactly what is happening in their bodies, in that moment, and to make wise choices, work hard, and with proper alignment and without injurious pain.
When I’m moving students through poses, I almost never call the poses by their Sanskrit or English names, hoping they’ll come into them more present-minded. I encourage students to use props, and to move slowly and methodically. I’m always building to a very specific pose and I’m very meticulous about what needs to be learned in order to safely approach the pose we’re working towards. Some of my students move closely along with my instructions. Yesterday these students may have been in triangle pose with their hand flat on the floor, but today they know that they might need a block to achieve that same proper alignment. They understand that staying present in what they need in that moment, that day, is more important than putting their hand on the floor simply out of repetition.
It’s amazing because often times the students who are making present-moment decisions achieve poses they never thought possible. They walk down a different street every time they come onto their mats, looking at the poses with fresh eyes as a place to learn, change, grow and put in the effort. Then there’s the converse, (and trust me, I was this student myself which is why the poem speaks to me so loudly) who don’t modify, and plop into the poses the same way they’ve done for years. They forgo alignment or mistakingly think, “I’ve got this pose, I’ve been doing Triangle Pose for years,” and then make an icky face at the mere suggestion of props. The funny thing is, often times this group also gets stuck at the peak pose of class. The question always comes, “I’ve been trying to do xyz pose for years and I can’t get there, why do I keep falling down the same way?” The reason is likely that their repetitious patterns have led them right back to the same place they’ve been stuck for years. For these students my reply is always the same. You’re stuck because, perhaps, you keep approaching the poses the same way time and time again. It’s as if you’re beating your head against a plaster wall hoping the next time your head hits the surface it will have turned to soft foam.
The next time you come to class, try to pretend you’ve never done yoga before, come into each pose with the hope of exploring them in the moment as if they’re brand new. Modify and use props you’ve never used, work hard in places you avoid, and soften in places where you hold yourself so rigid. It’s truly remarkable when you make that shift, I know how powerful it was for me when I heard this poem for the first time and really got it. Poses that I used to think were easy became incredibly challenging, but I knew the hard work I was putting into it and the change in my approach would pay off. This new approach helped me improve and achieve other postures that I’d been stuck in for years and that was my ‘AH-HA’ moment in action.
I was no longer doing that thing we’ve all fallen victim to – repeating behaviors or actions over and over, getting the same result, and somehow being surprised that we’ve ended up in the same place again. The practice of yoga is about clearing away the clutter of your mind so that the present is all you can see. It’s about letting go of the thoughts of the past, or the future, and being in our bodies and minds in the present moment – which is the only moment we truly have. It’s only in that present moment that we can choose to walk down the correct path and avoid the pitfalls that we repetitiously end up in. In that moment, we are making choices based on what’s in front of us rather than what’s happened in the past or what we anticipate will happen in the future.
This work isn’t always easy. It can be painful and down-right hard. It can be hard to “let go” and agree to back off in a pose, or to accept a block when you think you’ve been nailing it without one for years. I can say from experience, that when you choose to do that and listen to what you need in that present moment, you take a different path and the unachievable becomes possible. The poses in yoga are just the first step. They’ll often show you where you repetitiously fall victim to patterns off the mat as well. That’s the real beauty of the physical practice of yoga, it’s a mirror for our behaviors in our daily life. My advice is this; Do the practice, put in the effort, do what’s hard, and pay attention. When you do, what you see and realize, will change your life. You may find yourself walking down streets without holes in them a lot more often.
Alex Crow is a YogaWorks teacher, YogaWorks teacher trainer, and MyYogaWorks online yoga instructor. Alex’s yoga classes offer a methodical, yet challenging, approach to yoga where she encourages students to pay attention to what their bodies need in the present moment in order to get the most out of their yoga practice. Check out Alex’s website, take one of her online yoga classes on MyYogaWorks, one of her public classes at YogaWorks Santa Monica, or connect with her on Facebook.