Flexible Mind, Flexible Body

How yoga can help us break free of our samskaras

The New Year means new resolutions. Every yoga class I've been to since January 1 has been packed to the brim with students eager to get fit or be more flexible in 2018. 

Yes! We should all be more flexible to counteract the effects of sitting all day, hunched over our desks. But I see students, novice or experienced, forcing themselves into poses that may not be right for their bodies. We want to be more flexible physically, but we approach yoga with the rigid attitude that there is one right way to practice.

Getting Stuck in Our Ways

If we muscle through yoga in pursuit of some end aesthetic goal, then we miss out on understanding our bodies and our greater selves better. Yoga is a way of being not doing and is specific to each student's needs. 

I've stumbled across this problem in my own practice. I have a flexible lower back, and tend to do backbends to my deepest range of motion. I knew over-extending wasn't the healthiest practice, but I was too attached to being the most flexible person in the room that I didn't care. By being too attached to a physical ideal, I was letting my samskaras get in the way of truly deepening my practice. 

Samskaras are patterns or impressions from past actions that can be good or bad. Positive samskaras are generosity or the desire to help others. Negative samskaras are low self esteem or greed. Sometimes our samskaras can make us set in our ways or afraid of change. It's human to run towards the things we are good at and run away from our weaknesses. While I loved backbends, I avoided inversions like handstand for years. I was too scared of falling that I never worked on them and never grew. This way of thinking leaves us stuck in a rut not only in our yoga practice, but in our daily lives. We are so scared of failing that we shy away from new jobs or stay in toxic relationships. We can't move forward and evolve.

Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.

Breaking Free

To get out of this rut, we have to set intentions for ourselves. Change has to be active or it will not come. In your next yoga class, think about what your intention will be whether its to try a new pose or do a different variation with the help of props. Self-study (svadhyaya) is also a tool to break free of our habits. After doing a challenging asana, take a moment to notice how your body feels rather than how it looks. Now when I do Bow Pose (Dhanurasana), I think about if I'm practicing it in the safest way to encourage extension through my entire spine, not just my low back. It may not be the highest Bow in the class, but it's helped me strengthen new parts of my body and get over my old patterns.

Breaking free from our old habits is liberating. Who cares if you do baby cobra, (bhujangasana), in a flow class instead of upward dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)? Who cares if you can't do headstand in the middle of the room? It's your practice and no one else's. Your practice is your own to take risks in and try new things without judgement.

When we learn to be flexible in our minds not just our bodies, we can take this off the mat and into the world. We will be less afraid to take risks in our careers and personal lives. We will be able to face new obstacles and overcome them. Then we can pursue the best version of our selves. 

What are your intentions for 2018? Look forward to growing together this year!