Don’t Look at the Wall

I recently read that one of the most important tips given to new race car drivers is, “whatever you do, don’t look at the wall.” When I heard this, it immediately reminded me of one of my very first practice driving sessions with my mom when I was a teenager. As I was driving 25mph down a street in my dinky little home town, my sister yells out from the back seat for us to look at a house to our right. Without thinking, I turn my head to look. In just that one split second, turning my attention away from the road and just to the side, I had swerved the car and nearly driven up onto the sidewalk. Whether you realize it or not, where you place your focus is the direction you are heading.

We say something similar when teaching arm balances in yoga. In teacher training when we practiced cues for bakasana (crow pose) we were told to always make sure to emphasize the importance of our gaze. If you look straight down between your hands as you try to lower your body’s weight forward onto the backs of the arms, you’re inevitably going to tumble forward and possibly hit your head on the floor. The trick is to look a few inches ahead of you. Looking forward, but not down. Our gaze is a reflection of our focus and intention and a reminder of how important these things are.

I think these physical examples are an excellent demonstration of how this same principle applies in more abstract matters. If you look at the wall, you’ll hit the wall. If you look at the floor below you, that’s where you’re going. If you focus on the potential problems or possible ways you might fail, that is where you’re going to find yourself in the future. It seems so obvious when I think about it in this context.

My anxiety is always directing me to the worse possible outcome. It would be great if I were able to print out a pie graph of my mental energy expenditure from day to day. I’d be willing to bet that 90% of my thoughts are about what I’m afraid of or what could go wrong. Even when things usually go pretty well for me, I always immediately find the next fear to latch onto as soon as one disappears. Somehow my brain convinces itself that it is doing this to keep me safe. And to a certain extent, it is smart to contemplate obstacles that may come up and how we can deal with them in the event that they do. However, this is not really what my anxiety is doing. It’s not coming up with calm, rational contingency plans. It’s telling me that the experience will be inherently stressful and traumatizing and trying to find a way to avoid it all together.

It’s really helpful for me to remember the real life examples of the way our focus determines our experience and even has an influence on future outcomes. Yoga gives us ample opportunities to practice these principles before putting them into action in other areas of our lives. Getting into an arm balance is scary. You’re quite likely to fall down the first few times you try. But if we focus on that fear or how it feels to fall and hurt ourselves, we’re never going to master bakasana! Focus on what’s in front of you. Focus on where you want to be or what you want to see happen. If you focus on falling you’re going to fall or perhaps never let yourself try in the first place.

Realizing and reminding myself that my focus on fear is not helping me to avoid it, but instead propelling me toward it, is exactly where I need to begin. Normally when I contemplate shifting my thoughts to the positives and letting go of my anxiety about any given situation, I become afraid that by not looking at the scary bits, they’ll sneak up on me or something. It’s like trying to keep your eyes on a spider at the corner of your room so that it won’t suddenly appear on your arm. But what if staring at that spider was an invitation for it to come over to you? You’d probably keep yourself busy with whatever you’re doing and leave it alone.

It’s time for me to start giving my energy to the good things in life that I want to create, not the parts that I want to avoid. If I focus on the good, I’ll naturally move past or through the obstacles in due time. When I let myself focus on only the scary parts of life, that is all I’m going to experience, whether my fears come to fruition or not. I’ll have already lived the worst of them out in my mind anyway. It’s okay to let myself think about the good things that might happen too or the things I hope will happen. It’s safe to let myself be happy. It’s safe to imagine a future full of positivity and light. In fact, that’s the first step towards manifesting that future.

Rise to the Challenge

I have met tons of people that identify themselves as competitive. I’ve been told that is a natural part of human nature, and I suppose all living things must have a certain competitive drive in order to survive. I, myself, however, have never considered myself competitive. I’ve never been very interested in sports or even playing cards or board games. There is nothing inside of me that drives me to win. Winning a game or a sport means little to nothing to me. Yet losing still makes me feel badly about myself. Therefore there is really no benefit to me participating in competitive activities.

I’ve wondered about this aspect of myself since I became aware of it. I do think a lot of it stems from social anxiety, but there is another aspect I think might be relevant. Growing up as the youngest sibling, you learn pretty fast that the chances of you winning anything or outperforming your older sibling are slim to none. I got used to always losing every single game we would play growing up. One particular incident stands out where I was playing “Mouse Trap” with my sister and grandmother. When I lost I was so distraught and unwilling to surrender my cheese game piece that I cried and shut myself up in my room. From all of these experiences, I think I have internalized the idea that challenge and competition inevitably means failure and disappointment. This has become so ingrained in me that I feel no more likely to win games of chance than I do ones that involve skill.

To this day, I still don’t enjoy playing games at parties (drinking games are a bit more acceptable) and even the video games I play are much more about casual, steady progress and creativity than winning and losing or being challenged. Until recently this was all the further I really thought about this mindset of mine. So I don’t like games very much, that’s no big deal. I dug no deeper into the matter.

The other day, however, I realized just how much this aversion to challenge has skewed my entire worldview. After all, competition and challenge is something that we all encounter each and every day in our careers, in our relationships, and even within ourselves. How you choose to perceive and respond to these challenges has a huge impact on your self-perception and your overall quality of life. Only very recently did it occur to me that not only do I anticipate failure in games, but in the challenges I face in life as well. I’ve come to view any type of challenging situation as inherently negative, foreshadowing only failure and embarrassment, never as an opportunity for self discovery or personal growth.

I think one of the ways I can start to change this mindset, is by allowing myself space to fail. There was a wonderful example of this practice in the yoga class I did yesterday. Vrikshasana or tree pose, as well as all the other balancing poses in yoga, are a great place to start playing with this. Once a balancing posture becomes second nature and relatively easy to hold, it’s time to start pushing the limits of our balancing ability. Often a cue is given to try closing your eyes. If you’ve never tried this, it is exceptionally difficult to maintain your balance with the eyes closed. Normally, I ignore this option. I inevitably fall out of the pose and get upset with myself.

Yesterday the cue was given in a slightly different way though. Because of this, I was able to let go of the expectation or even the goal of maintaining my balance perfectly and staying in the pose for any length of time with my eyes shut. It wasn’t about how long I could manage to stay still, but simply what it would feel like to try. Once I released the pressure of perfecting the pose, I actually was able to do better at this challenge than I ever have been in the past. Not only that, but I didn’t feel any irritation or disappointment when I did fall out of the pose.

Whether you enjoy challenges or not, the fact is that you are going to be faced with them regularly. It’s not an option to avoid all challenge for the rest of you life. Rather than trying to avoid challenges, perhaps we can try to look at them in a different, healthier way. Sometimes it even helps me to imagine what it would feel like to be someone that is competitive or excited by the idea of being challenged. Despite my initial reaction, I do admit that there is a certain pleasure and even peace in being challenged. When I’m doing something new or difficult, I am usually more focused than usual. And the only thing I really have to fear is my own self criticism.

In order to let go of the outcome and my expectations for myself, I find it helpful to start off by viewing failure as a likely and acceptable option. It’s almost more pleasurable if I assume I am going to fail from the beginning. Success or failure was never the point most of the time anyway. The point of life isn’t to do everything perfectly all of the time or even most of the time. Life is about trying new things, being curious, and growing through adversity. Failure is a natural part of these things and what’s most likely holding us back from them. Once we realize that we have the choice to live happily with our mistakes and failures we can finally be free to explore and blossom as we were meant to.

How to do Vrikshasana | The Tree Pose | Learn Yogasanas Online | Yoga and  Kerala

Balance

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Once again it was teacher training weekend at my yoga studio. This month they are learning about balancing postures. I think these poses have the potential to be particularly special teaching tools. We are able to learn so much about ourselves through them. They help us build strong stabilizing muscles. They allow us to connect with our center. They help us develop focus, perseverance, and grace. They help us create beautiful shapes with the body. And they also lead to profound insights about who we are and how we deal with life on and off our mats.

One of my favorite sayings in yoga is: the mat is a mirror. Our yoga practice is a little microcosm of life. When we are performing our asanas, when we allow the mind to be still, when we watch our thoughts, our reactions, we are able to learn a lot. One of the most important things balancing postures showed me is how I deal with frustration. I can still remember following along with challenging advanced yoga videos online and getting absolutely infuriated when I wasn’t able to keep up or move through the poses in time with the video. I was literally almost in tears I was so angry. One day I was able to pause long enough and find enough space to see this. Then I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. Why on earth was I getting so mad? Why was I acting so vicious and serious? Why was I being so hard on myself? It all seemed so absurd.

This lesson has stayed with me ever since. I still catch myself becoming upset sometimes when I keep falling out of a balancing pose, but now it just makes me smile. It’s just a reminder to be gentle with myself, to come back to my breath, to remember why I’m here. Falling out of a handstand is just as important as holding one. Maybe even more important. What does doing a pose perfectly teach you? “Failing” to reach your goal is much more helpful for our internal and external growth. When we fall, we learn to fall safely. We learn where are limits are, when to honor and when to challenge those limits. We learn how to keep trying. We learn new things to focus on. We learn how to forgive ourselves. Aren’t these the reasons we keep coming back to our practice? Isn’t that why it’s called a practice? All of these things are so much more valuable to our lives than being able to balance on our hands upside down.

Yoga is a constant reminder that this life is truly about the journey, not the destination. It reminds me of something I saw recently online. It was commenting about how messed up those posters are in schools that say things like: Failure is not an option! How silly that sounds. Failure is always an option. Failure is just another part of the journey, not the end. Failure is full of lessons. It’s an opportunity for growth. It’s not something we should fear or try to avoid. It is necessary. And it’s a perfectly acceptable part of life, no matter what stage of it you find yourself in. We shouldn’t be teaching our children to fear failure but how to embrace it and learn from it. There are so many poses I am able to do now with ease that I never would have imagined I’d be capable of a few years ago. If I wouldn’t have allowed myself to try and fail dozens if not hundreds of times, I would never have found out what amazing things my body could learn to do.

It makes me wonder how many opportunities for growth I’ve already passed up in this life simply because I was too afraid of failure to try. It is these types of thoughts that make me believe that yoga is the best gift I have ever been given in this life. Yoga allows you to realize that you are holding your life in your own hands. It is a soft lump of clay that you can form anything you want out of. Hardships, suffering, failure. Things that once seemed so impossible to face, I now see as lessons, puzzles, mysteries, or riddles. What can I learn from this? Can I find the glimmer of light on the horizon of the darkest night? Can I learn to accept and fully experience whatever this life presents to me? Can I find joy and ease even when it’s hard? If you’re someone who loves to learn like me, you’ll be happy to know that there is a lesson in everything if you look for one. Better still, when you are looking for your own lessons, you will find exactly what you need most.

There is still so much left for me to learn and discover in my yoga practice as well as my life. I’m sure there are even more things like what I’ve discussed today that I will encounter along this strange and beautiful journey. Things that will change me forever. Things that will challenge me, surprise me, test me, and remold me in ways I am unable to imagine as I am now. I can’t wait to keep practicing, to keep searching, learning, finding balance, falling, failing, laughing, and getting back up.

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The Mirror of Yoga

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A yoga practice is quite often a reflection of the yogi’s inner life. Yoga has the potential to be a window into our personal struggles, fears, strengths, weaknesses, and much more. Even before I knew about the spiritual side of yoga, I could feel it changing the way I thought about and perceived the world as well as my place within it. Those who have a personal yoga practice as simply exercise or stretching like I once did, still can’t avoid the deeper impact and insight it provides.

It is a rare opportunity to go within, to be alone with ourselves, to notice the patterns of our own minds. Are we easily frustrated? Are we critical of ourselves at every turn? Is it hard to let go? Is it hard to be still? To remain focused on what’s in front of us? Can we learn to settle our minds, to use our breath? Yoga provides us with a chance to learn all of these things about ourselves. When we practice yoga, we are not only training the body. We are also training the mind.

I have noticed my own struggles reflected in my practice lately. It has felt like my safe haven recently, a way to escape from my reality. Yet yoga has a way of showing us things, even things we don’t want to see. Having an “escape” inevitably begs the question, why is one needed? Allowing my practice to be a shield from the rest of my life, has caused it to become rather stagnant. I feel stuck. Just as I do overall right now.

Our daily lives feed our practice just as much as our practice feeds into our lives. That vital loop has been severed for me for awhile now. It is hard to feel passionate, inspired, playful, or courageous in your practice when you aren’t able to feel that way day to day. It is hard to practice self-love, self-care, compassion, and ahimsa in a one hour vacuum. It is hard to teach from the heart, when you have been hiding your heart from even yourself.

Lately my practice, while always an enjoyable time of peace, rest, and rejuvenation, has felt like hypocrisy at the same time. I am isolating myself within my yoga, instead of allowing the nutrients of my practice to sate the gnawing pangs of my real life problems.

My yoga mirror has been showing me the reflection of my fear, my avoidance, my inertia. I am afraid to challenge myself. I am afraid that I won’t be able to rise to those challenges. I am afraid to fail, to fall. I have remained in one place for so long, not progressing in life, nor my asanas. Telling myself I can’t do it before I have even given myself the chance to try.

But I should know better. Because yoga has also taught me that there is no reason to be afraid. There is no reason to fear failure. Because even failure is not final. When you are learning to do a headstand, you are going to fall. A lot. If I had taken that first failure as proof I was incapable, my body would not be able to do any of the incredible things I’ve taught it to do. Yoga teaches us that failure is a necessary part of growth. When you fall, you laugh, get up, and try again. And with each fall, you learn something new. I need to engage my core more. I need to place my hands wider apart. I need to focus. I was holding my breath. Failure is not something to avoid, it is a valuable chance to learn vital information.

I want to use these lessons and the many others yoga has given me. I want to move forward in my practice, in life. I want to try new things. To be playful again, curious, excited. To laugh and learn and love myself despite my missteps along the way. No matter what happens, I know I’ll always have a safe place to rest. On the mat, and within. We all do.

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