Bringing it Back to the Mat: A Tree vs A Stick
One of the most common questions I get as a yoga teacher from people who haven't practiced before, is something along the lines of "how often should I go?" For the most part, I know what they're asking me. They want to know how long before they can reach their toes in a standing forward bend, when they'll be able to do a handstand or perhaps when the pain in their low back will go away. The answer depends on many individual factors but the question also tells me they haven't quite grasped the meaning of yoga. It's as though the person grabbed what they think is a stick and not realized they actually have hold of a tree.
When I came to yoga in the mid 1990's, I was in an urban fast lane that I thought I loved. You either ran with the wolves or you were eaten by them. I was about to be devoured. I loved playing with the big dogs but I was really out of my league. The stress was building. Some people handle stress well, or at least they give the appearance of it. I smiled, put on a gorgeous red suit and swirled in denial. On some level, however, I knew I was drowning. I needed to slow down but I just didn't know how. The world seemed very black and white.
I was a member of one of Seattle's elite aerobics clubs and went to step aerobics several days a week. As the pressures of living in the fast lane continued to bear down on me, I decided to try a yoga class. What did I, fast lane denizen, think of my first yoga class? I hated it. It was hard to breathe AND move in the sun salutation. I could not yoke my mind to my body much less understand what it meant. The whole experience, from where to put my foot to my perception of the teacher's "I'm better than you" attitude totally turned me OFF. I was so frustrated that I didn't return to yoga for two more years. I was still in the fast lane, but by then, it had worn me out and I was ready.
How long yoga takes is relative. For the sake of argument, let's say we are really ready for this thing. How much time does it take to *get it*? If we're just talking the physical postures, not long. I'm aware in my body and eager to learn. My hamstrings were my nemesis for years. They never seemed to lengthen. I tried so hard that I even injured myself and had to back off quite a bit to rehabilitate them. In the meantime, I learned my sun salutations, my twists and backbends, warriors and balances. Sometimes I went once a week, and sometimes I went daily. I purchased books on yoga and began practicing at home. I taught myself how to do headstands and breathing techniques. Then something happened to me over the years of "trying." I found I cared less about how flexible my hamstrings were or if I could do forearm stand and became more curious about other aspects of my practice, meditation and chakras/subtle energy. I now spend as much time with them as I do with asana/poses. So in terms of the bigger picture of yoga, I'm still "getting it" nearly 20 years later.
On any given day, each yoga pose can feel quite different. The triangle pose of today is not the triangle pose of tomorrow. If you're an athlete you know that how you preform in your sport of choice varies from day to day sometimes based on things as basic as how well you slept the night before. If you are not an athlete, know that each time you get on to your mat it is like an author looking at a blank piece of paper. You will make new discoveries each time you start. You might know where to put your feet in each pose, but it will feel different day to day. Going to a class can be misleading because the teacher has to design a class that fits MOST people. If you practice on your own, you can design a practice that fits your immediate needs. You can take your time and breathe life into a backbend that might get short shrift in a classroom setting. Consider the classroom a place to get ideas for your home practice.
As you work through your poses, use them to teach you about yourself in the moment. Don't force the poses. Resist the urge to to make them "look" a certain way. Feel your poses. Surrender to their shape and individual requirements. What do their alignment rules tell you about yourself? Do you rebel or acquiesce? As you hold the pose and breathe, what can you learn in the moment about yourself? You may find you don't like what you learn about yourself and this is why many people leave a yoga practice. No one likes to look in the mirror (figuratively speaking) and really see their flaws, but it's how you get better, on the mat and off the mat.
If we look at the overarching goals of yoga, they include ending suffering and improving meditation. Come do our 30 for $30. Diligently do a practice, physically and mentally and then you tell me how long it takes. I'll await your reply.