Burn Out, Don't Fade Away

When you've pushed yourself too hard in yoga, it's time to slow down, not give up.
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When you've pushed yourself too hard in yoga, it's time to slow down, not give up.

I recently met a guy from New York City who was burnt out on yoga. He'd been through 500 hours of teacher trainings and had taught classes in Manhattan and the outer boroughs for years. But now he was done. A herniated disk in his neck had stopped his physical practice cold. He'd grown tired of the hyper-competitive mega-professionals who attended his Manhattan classes who'd complain to him that the practices he'd spent hours designing weren't challenging enough. His own teachers were hitting on students in class or taking their programs in directions that simply didn't seem right. Enough yoga, he said.

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We all go through these phases in our practice. When you first encounter yoga, it's with incredible delight, like a newborn faun looking upon the world for the first time. Everything is fresh and wonderful. Your body loses some of its stiffness and your mind loses some of its crazy. Just getting on the mat seems like a gift.

Inevitably, you get excited by this amazing thing called yoga. So you practice harder. You sweat more, pushing your mind and body to their limits. Suddenly, it feels like you're part of an special club full of special people, and that you've discovered the secret to permanent health and happiness. If the first phase of yoga is like childhood, then this phase is adolescence, burning hot and fast with emotion and power and energy.

Then adulthood hits. You get hurt. Or your teacher says something disagreeable. The people who you thought were wonderful avatars of selfless happiness turn out to be frail human beings who make mistakes and behave badly. The world, inevitably, disappoints. At these moments, people often give up the practice of yoga entirely. It's totally understandable, but it's also a mistake.

Take, for example, the recent controversy over Anusara yoga, which forced founder John Friend to step down amid a flurry of accusations of financial fraud, sexual misconduct, and drug use. Anusura was one of the world's happiest (on the surface) and most popular forms of yoga. It was fun, physical, and affectionate, a yoga summer camp where everyone loved one another. Its adherents filled their hearts with joy, living the adolescent phase of yoga life in "grand gatherings" attended by thousands. Now that it's crashed, many practitioners are left questioning and wandering in the yoga woods, wondering what to do next.

Meanwhile, though, millions of people around world, most of whom have never heard of John Friend and his Anusara, are going about their daily yoga practices, trying to make themselves feel just a little better. Thousands of teachers in small rooms across America are gently teaching yoga to groups of five or six people at a time, trying their best to do it without prejudice, judgment, or ego. Away from the headlines and the controversy, this, too, is yoga. I know it's there, because I've experienced it, and many of you probably have as well.

I talked about all of this to my newfound friend. Take a restorative class, I said. Try some yin yoga. Or go to a Level 1 Iyengar class, where they don't talk woo-woo and don't take any crap from yoga go-getters. Forget about the overaggressive Manhattanites. They have their own lives and their own priorities. Their problems aren't yours.

Yoga is always there for you, always good for you, and so, so easy. Take a deep breath through your nose. Lift your arms up over your head. And start over.