As Hatha Yoga practice has grown, blossomed, and spread into hundreds of varieties throughout the West, I find it increasingly more complicated to answer the moderately curious acquaintance when she asks me questions like, “So, what do you think about Hot Yoga?” Or, the even more complicated, “What’s your yoga class like?”
After some bumbling attempts at a coherent, clear, and concise answer in the grocery store, the random text bubble, or the school drop-off line, I’ve decided that in the face of complexity, the simple answer is best: “Hot Yoga’s not for everybody,” and “You’ll have to come to a class and find out!”
While it’s true that no one yoga class or style of yoga works for everybody, it is also true that there is at least one yoga practice that will work for each of us; it just takes some searching and seeking before we find it.
A quick internet search will turn up thousands of websites, articles, and posts regarding new yoga trends, yoga philosophy, the history of yoga in the West, and traditional yogic lineages. As you begin your yoga journey, it is good and wise to attend a variety of classes and workshops in different traditions and with different teachers within those traditions. You will quickly learn what works for you and what doesn’t. You might also find that what works for you during one phase of your life won’t help you during the next.
But the beauty of yoga is that it adapts. We don’t have to bend and twist ourselves to fit the yoga; the yoga can extend and untwist to fit us. So even if you trained and studied in one tradition, that doesn’t preclude you from dipping your toes in the waters of another. When you find what works for you, embrace it. There will be aspects of different styles that speak to us in different ways, and some will stay with us forever, throughout all our transformations. There will be other practices that served us well at one time but not longer fit, and still others that never fit in the first place, and we finally realize we can let them go.
Understanding ourselves is an important part of yogic practice; in Sanskrit it’s called svadhyaya, self-study, and is one of the five niyamas, or observances. However, when we study ourselves mercilessly, it is easy to get caught up in an endless cycle of striving toward an imagined future self, a constant and relentless “self-improvement.” We can easily apply this destructive habit to our yoga practice, or make our yoga practice itself a part of this negative striving. Self-study is important and necessary, but it is not a directive to hold ourselves to unrealistic expectations, on our yoga mat or off. It is a draining way of life to be consistently telling ourselves we can do better, instead of relishing the moments in which we do so very well. We deplete ourselves more and more with each I need to, I should do, and if only I could. We deceive ourselves when we repeat, I’m not good enough, I’ve not done enough, I don’t produce enough, I am not enough.
Instead, reflecting on ourselves positively, or with non-attachment and a suspension of judgement, can uncover our uniqueness. In our yoga practice, this means we give ourselves the freedom to let go of some poses or breathing practices and embrace others, to modify certain postures or theories and experiment with new ones. We never stop being curious, so we never stop learning. If we can do this on our mat, the hope is that we can do this in our lives. We can learn our strengths and our weaknesses so that going out into the world we ask for help when we know we need it, and offer help where we know we can serve. In this way we can be a force for good in the world, giving others the opportunity to love us, and acting on opportunities in which we can love another.
The magnitude of discovering who we are and then actually being ourselves cannot be overstated.
There is an old Hasidic tale that expresses the importance of being who we are, of being who we have been created to be:
When the great, sweet Rabbi Zusia of Hanipol was on his deathbed, his students gathered all around him. The Teacher said to them:
When I get to the Next World, I am not afraid if God will ask me, “Zusia, why weren’t you Moses, to lead the people out of this land where Jews are so oppressed and beaten by the people?” I can answer, “I did not have the leadership abilities of a Moses.”
And if God asks, “Zusia, why weren’t you Isaiah, reprimanding the people for their sins and urging them to change their ways, to repent?” I could answer, “I did not have the eloquence of Isaiah, the Great Master of powerful and dazzling speech.”
And if God should ask, “Zusia, why weren’t you Maimonides, to explain the deeper meaning of Judaism to the philosophers of the world, so they would understand the Jews better and perhaps treat them better?” I can answer, “I did not have the vast intellectual skills of Maimonides.”
No, my students, I am not afraid of those questions. What I fear is this: What if God asks me, “Zusia, why weren’t you Zusia?”
Then what will I say?
Indeed, God will not ask us, “Why were you not your neighbor or your friend? Why were you not your sister or your grandmother?” So why are we striving to be what we are not, and ignoring all that we are? Why do we hold ourselves to such exacting and incredibly damaging expectations?
If God will ask us, “Why were you not yourself?” then let us study with a tender heart to uncover our truest selves, to seek and to find the yogic lineage that fits us best, even if that means we create a new one, a mosaic that we piece together over a lifetime, a magnanimous collage of all that is benevolent and kind?
My dear friends,
May we offer ourselves the same compassion we offer our friends,
May we love ourselves as we love others,
May we discover and embrace our truest selves, and
May we finally be the person we have been created to be.
Know that my gratitude for your continued dedication to your practice cannot be overestimated. You are an inspiration to me.
The Catholic Yogi