My yoga practice has not been 'good' for a long time. The last time I can remember actually feeling proud of the way my postures looked was in October 2011 when I participated in a 30 day challenge. For 30 straight days of yoga I made it my goal to finally touch my forehead to knee in Standing Head to Knee.
Well I did manage to complete Standing Forehead to Knee... but then I went on vacation to Mexico for my brother's wedding... then Christmas came... and before I knew it a new year was here and I was struggling to find time to get into the yoga studio and as a matter of fact I was not practicing at the same intensity anymore either. Something inside of me felt like I had reached a peak in my yoga practice.
I imagine this is similar to what Michael Phelps went through after his amazing eight gold medal winning streak at the 2008 Olympics. He admitted to Details magazine that he wondered, "all right, where do I go from here?" That is the same sentiment I felt after being able to more or less perform every posture in the Bikram's Beginner's Series.
For years I dreamed of being able to do every posture. I listened closely to each word the teachers said in class, favoring the form and setup of the posture with the belief that one day my body would improve enough that I could enjoy the depth as well. Over time, my shoulders loosened up, my back become more flexible and my legs got stronger. I could not wait until I could push into the postures without a feeling of stiffness somewhere within my body. One day a student asked me after class, 'how long until it doesn't hurt anymore?' And I remember feeling a certain kinship with her understanding that one day it would get easier, but I had to tell her the truth, 'it could be a long time'.
After three years of regular practice as a teacher, I knew the time had come for me. During the 30 day challenge, for the first time ever, I was asked to demonstrate postures in class. I pushed myself further than I ever had before and I sweated and stretched deep into backbends, Standing Bows and of course was able to do the full Standing Forehead to Knee for the first time in my life. It felt good to practice that way and I got frustrated if I was having an off day or if I woke up stiff and couldn't go as deep as I wanted into the postures.
Yet since the beginning of this year I have been feeling unmotivated and at times loathe to get into the room to practice. Phelps went through a similar period of self-doubt, "I wasn't motivated. I did nothing, literally nothing, for a long time. I gained 25 pounds..."
I found I had to force myself to practice a minimum of 3 times a week and when I did practice, for the first time my mind was completely undisciplined and my thoughts were all over the place. I constantly compared the depth of my postures day to day and sometimes started the postures late or came out early. I always found myself leaving feeling stressed and burnt out by the end of the class. I had completely forgotten that yoga has two sides to its' coin - the form and the depth.
I took a five week vacation to Europe and had a chance to reconnect with old friends there. It was a life-changing trip that put a lot of things into perspective and somehow when I returned, I was looking forward to practicing yoga again. It didn't really matter any more how my postures looked or what depth I could achieve in them, all that mattered was that I realized how important yoga was to me - how much it enhanced the quality of my life.
With this new insight my practice has radically changed in the past couple of weeks. Although I still have good and bad classes, I am happy to be in the yoga room and feel re-invigorated to pay close attention to the form while simply enjoying the depth that occurs that day. I no longer feel the need to push deep into a posture just to see how far I can go. Rediscovering my focus on form has allowed me to build new strength in my body and sharpen my concentration as I commit to starting the postures on time, moving into them carefully and correctly and holding them for as long as the teacher specifies.
I agree with Phelps, who has started training again for the 2012 Olympics; "I'm fine-tuning the little things that add up to make a huge difference". Before, I was using my mind to gauge how flexible I could become in a certain posture. Now I use my mind to listen to each word the teacher says and set up the posture properly then simply use my breath to let my body relax and stretch into the depth. If my body is able to take me more deeply into a posture than usual I feel euphoric... but if I am feeling tight or stiff that day I also feel euphoric. I don't waste mental strength worrying about how far my body has opened up into the pose, I simply feel joyful that I am able to practice yoga and therefore make a difference in my life.