I remember when I first began to practice yoga. It was purely a physical pursuit. I wanted to become stronger and more flexible so I found myself chasing ‘advanced’ poses that I couldn’t do yet, but wanted to.
I remember, around that time, reaching a roadblock in the form of a pose. The pose became my arch nemesis. Teacher after teacher said to me, ‘There is no reason you can’t get into this pose’. Each time I heard it I thought, ‘There obviously is a reason, otherwise I’d be in it’.
One day, a few seconds before attempting the pose for the second time that class, I found myself complaining to myself, ‘My legs are too heavy, my muscles are too weak’. Then another thought entered my mind, ‘What would the pose feel like if I actually managed to do it?’.
Where would my weight be placed? Would my legs still feel heavy? What would my mind be doing?
I imagined it.
The teacher cued the pose again and suddenly….I was in it. Not the struggling half-in-half-out version from a few minutes before; a full this-couldn’t-have-been-any-easier version that I’d never experienced before.
The only thing that changed was how I thought about the pose. Such is the power of the mind.
This was my first yoga breakthrough, though it certainly wasn’t the last. The body (through the medium of yoga’s physical practices) has been the vehicle for many of those breakthroughs. Ultimately, though, as my practice has matured the physical aspects have become less important.
Looking back, the reason that day was significant was that it showed me the depths of my unrealised potential. Yoga has a lot to say about this. Its teaching is that we operate from only the smallest portion of our potential. The greater portion of our potential exists in unmanifest form. Our job, then, is to clear out the barriers to its realisation.
Those barriers take the form of cultural conditioning, self-limiting beliefs, the ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’ stories we tell ourselves in our head. All of these stories have been learned from family, from friends, from society. It stands to reason, then, that if learned, they can be unlearned too.
The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves tend to make our experience smaller. The practices we undertake in yoga (whether they’re physical, psychological or spiritual) are there, not in service of a tighter butt or longer hamstrings, but to the refinement of our capacity for clear seeing. They help us see truth from fiction, real from unreal.
As our awareness expands, our life expands too.
Will our butt become tighter or our hamstrings longer in the process? Probably, but why stop there? Physical practices are a drop in the ocean of yoga and if you’ve ever derived value from the drop, imagine what you might find in the ocean.
What I learned that day on the mat is that my mind is both my greatest obstacle and most powerful ally. If I think the mind is all I am, I will be a slave to the thoughts it produces. If, on the other hand, I come to understand that ‘mind’ is something that I have not something I am the entire playing field shifts.
Many questions arise from a shift like this:
When I realise that I am not my mind, but the awareness observing the mind thinking, I am catapulted into deep contemplation about who I am, my place in the world and the meaning of my own existence.
Now I’m doing yoga.