As a manager in a yoga studio, I spend a good portion of my time talking to nervous first time practitioners. I'm not strong enough. I'm too out of shape. I don't look like everyone else in their tight Lululemon pants. I'm not flexible. I am afraid of making a fool of myself. To all of these people, I say the same thing: "If you can move and breathe at the same time, you can practice yoga here." The style of yoga we teach is Astanga-based so it's full of vinyasas and tends to be on the rigorous side and, yes, there will be things that beginners might not be able to do in their first (through twentieth) class. Same goes to intermediate and advanced level students. But that's not the point of yoga -- doing that arm balance or coming up into headstand or mastering a Sun B isn't what makes the practice. It's the practice that makes it perfect. It's the effort, the concentration, the intention. In many ways, it's like having a good attitude instead of a bad one. So maybe your heels don't reach the ground in downward facing dog. Who cares? Mine don't, not even after seven years of almost daily practice. My calves are tight and so those heels will probably never flatten against my mat in that pose. It doesn't stop me from getting on my mat. I get on my mat, step one, to be in the moment, to achieve what I can in this singular class. Yes, I can move and breathe at the same time -- I can do yoga.
I was chatting with a few of the teachers at the studio over the weekend about this month's concentrated focus: prop usage. Both of these teachers "look" like yoga teachers and practice with very few need for modification, unless they're injured. I was explaining to them that props month was going to be a good one for many of our students, especially the ones who thought using props made their practice more remedial or elementary -- like they weren't really doing the practice if they "gave in" and used blocks or straps. But, really, props are there to make certain postures safer on the joints and more accessible to people with physical limitations. Using blocks and straps can actually make the practice far more beneficial for people who tend to hyper extend elbows or knees as well as people with tight calves or hamstrings (like me!). It actually took me finally understanding when and how to use these props -- and being comfortable with this knowledge -- to get me out of the land of basics (where I lived like a queen for many, ahem, years) and into the very scary land of Power -- doesn't it just sound intimidating? For me, it really was. I mean... My heels don't reach the mat in down dog, one of the most basic postures of all. How could I ever think I was ready for something like power yoga?
It took comfort level with the props and lots of gentle encouragement from my trusted teachers (thank you Katherine, thank you Ann, thank you Mimi) to make that big step up to the class level I should have attempted more than a year or two prior. I was just nervous -- who could blame me? I still needed to use blocks in half moon -- just like everyone in basics does. That must make me a basics kind of yogi, no matter how many years I had under my belt.
Of course, the answer to that is no, using blocks in half moon does not classify me as a basics bum for the rest of my yogic life. It means that I have the knowledge of both the practice and my practice to prop those blocks up when I need them without worrying that doing so makes me less of a yogini than the person practicing next to me. Because of this, I try to expand my answer of "When should I move on to intermediate and power?" from simply, "When you know how to do a Sun A" to "When you know how to do a Sun A and you know when and how to use props." Truthfully, students advance at much different rates and there's no predicting what things impact the decision of when to move up in class level -- it's a very personal decision.
For people like me, it was a big deal. I am a perfectionist. I didn't want to make a fool of myself or be the one person in the room who couldn't do the advanced posture -- the one everyone was talking about after class and rolling their eyes like, "What's that moron doing in here?" I wanted to ace everything in basics before I allowed myself to graduate. But the longer I stayed in basics, the more I realized there were some things I would never be able to do because of certain physical limitations and even though I learned to be OK with that and attempt power anyway, sometimes I do sit on my mat before class and look around at the other students, many of whom I know quite well, and I have a quiet laugh because I do not have a "yoga body." I am not waif-like or stick thin or long-limbed. I have never worn anything size extra small in my entire life and I have never skipped putting on my bra because, oh, I just don't really need it. I often joke that I can't do certain arm balances because my boobs are simply too big and they get in the way and as silly as that might sound, it's pretty legitimate. They are in the way. Other poses are next to impossible because of my excessively tight calves (even physiology guru Mimi shakes her head and says, "You, those calves, I just can't figure it out"), making even the simplest forward folds the most challenging poses in the sequence. It's not unusual for me to be the only student in the room who can't get certain binds (especially side angle or bird of paradise-esque stuff) and I won't be the one doing the "fancy" Astanga exit out of pretty much anything ever. My body doesn't bend that way and it most likely never will -- not even if I practiced for two hours a day every single day (which would likely wreck my joints from overuse anyway). And you know what? None of that matters. It took being dedicated to the practice and its myriad benefits for years to realize that even simply getting on my mat and moving with the breath made the practice worthwhile. Being the "flawless yogini" wasn't my goal anymore. Being the "diligent yogini" became the defining thing for me.
I have the body I have -- curvy and awesome -- and I accept me for who I am and what I can do and be both on and off my mat. My time on my mat has proven to be one of the greatest teachers of my life and a friend I will never ever lose, no matter what. Tight calves, woefully shallow forward folds, constantly bent knees, heels off the ground in down dog, unmastered arm balances, binds that will never be -- I thank you for teaching me, too. We achieve so much more through things that are challenging than things that come easily, so I am thankful that I made myself mentally move past my limitations and, instead, find ways to work with them and still feel rewarded by my practice. I guess when all of that is factored in, I actually do have a yoga body. I get on my mat and I move and breathe at the same time and I am a better person for it.