It's Practice that Matters, Not Performance
by Sohaila Akbar
How many times have we tried getting into a difficult asana, aiming to achieve the final posture? Or posted our best asana photographs on social media? And how many times have we simply focussed on getting our posture alignment correct? Or posted our failed attempts and not-so-perfect trials on Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms?
Perfection. That is what we usually run after. But what is perfection really, in terms of yoga asanas? Is it the images we see in yoga books and various media platforms? Is there only physical perfection? Or mental and emotional too? Even if we accept the current stage of practice we are in, we dare not show it to the world because we are anxious we will be judged for not being ‘perfect’. Why does this happen?
Let’s look at one aspect of it. For most of us, we start slow but after a while we start getting impatient. We start forcing ourselves to achieve what we assume is the final posture. Craning the neck to touch the head to the knee, contorting the torso to grab the wrist in Marichyasana C, tightening the facial muscles and hunching the shoulders to bear the added pressure in Sirsasana… sounds familiar? We often take harmful steps when we are frustrated; we either force our bodies to do our bidding, or we quit practising, resulting in either an injury to the body or the loss of peace of mind.
‘Ahimsa’ or ‘non-violence’ is one of the five ‘yamas’ or codes of conduct in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. Is tells us to abstain from any kind of violence, not only towards others but towards ourselves too. Forcing ourselves or over- exerting ourselves during asana practice is a kind of violence towards our bodies, is it not? Getting obsessed with asanas and what we think are the ‘perfect’ postures is not at all conducive to one’s practice. What is beneficial is perseverance and practice. Learning to differentiate between forcing our bodies and challenging our bodies is essential, so that we can enjoy our progress even if it is slow and steady.
Now let’s discuss social media, and its effects on our personal practice. I have heard so many people see online asana images and say “I can never do this, forget it! I am not even flexible.” The thing is that often people, including me, post their best photos on social media and not the previous attempts. So, someone seeing those photos has no idea about the time, effort and consistent practice that has gone behind that ‘oh-so-good-looking’ posture. We live in the age of technology, so these media platforms are not going anywhere. And why should they? There are two sides to every coin. These platforms are an efficient and interactive way of sharing knowledge, learning, networking, etc. What we can do is educate people around us so that they do not give up even before they try.
And not just social media, it happens in yoga classes too. We look at others getting into the seemingly advanced postures gracefully and we either get motivated or let our self-confidence go for a toss! Surely, these advanced practitioners have their own struggles they are dealing with. (Well, what we consider today as ‘advanced’ yoga is a topic for another discussion.) We cannot be looking at others and wanting to be just the same; that is an incorrect approach to practising asanas. Some of us may have to work on some areas a little more than others, and it’s OK. We should understand that our practice and our challenges might differ from others, and even though our practices are personal, we are in this together.
All of us are at various levels in our practice. A huge part of our strength and flexibility depends upon the period of time we have been practising for. ‘Practice’ is the key word here. We should also acknowledge the fact that our bodies and anatomies are different – height, weight, shape, the level of natural strength and flexibility – these are some of the factors that play a role in our asana practice. Let us respect our bodies for the changes they are going through. It is not a race, is it?
When we perform an asana, the physical body is just the tool, and changes are happening not only physically but inside too. Asanas are as much an outward practice as they are inward, and we would do well to remember that. It is almost a cliché, but asanas really are a process, even on the physical level. We do not see the effects of asanas on our bodies in a single day or a week. But if we keep practising patiently and consistently, we are able to observe and feel the changes. Once we are physically comfortable in any asana, we can try and delve deeper, going into the subtler mental aspect of it. Along with working on increasing flexibility and strength in the body, we should work on making the mind stronger and more flexible. Then, it will be easier to accept the changing phases of one’s practice. It is a journey meant to be experienced, enjoyed and to be learnt from. It is an opportunity to understand our bodies and to challenge them, not force them into submission. After all, asanas are a practice for the self, not a performance for everybody else.
About the Author
Sohaila is a Yoga teacher, keen on bringing about positive changes in the lives of others through the knowledge that she has received from her teachers. Prior to this she was a school teacher working towards imparting academic, social and ecological knowledge to young learners. Sohaila is an avid reader of books and have an undying love for fiction. She prefers paperbacks and hardcovers over e-books anyday. She loves travelling, and a good cup of coffee is always welcome!