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This weekend, I’m leading a three-day Core Strength Immersion in New York City. After writing my post about respecting limitations while still seeking transformation, I decided to make a public statement, not only to the 60 students in the room, but all the future yogis who will watch the Immersion (it’s being filmed): Let your poses be imperfect.
That’s right; I’ve hit a tipping point in my teaching where I am becoming much more interested in what a student can do to be more honestly themself in a pose, and I care much less how straight they can get their front leg in Triangle.
For an instructor who doubles as an anatomy geek, it may seem unusual to hear me say this, yet nothing could be more my style. Symmetry, or perfection as we sometimes think of it (the “perfect” body, relationship, or handstand), is what you get in a office building, with its level surfaces and, straight lines.
Balance, on the other hand, is what nature does, and it’s wild and free, yet comes to find its own equilibrium after all. Think of a river, which meanders here and there but ultimately reaches its source.
In your yoga poses, and your life–have you been remaining sensitive to your state of balance, or straining for symmetry? If it’s the latter, this may help give you perspective:
There is not one thing in the human body that runs in a straight line. Our bones, blood, and breath all move in a spiral motion. Our nerves, spine, brain, joints, GItract? Not linear either.
Yet so often, we strive to attain linear poses that our bodies are not made to reach. We want to be in alignment in a way that’s healthy and balanced, but it’s easy to let symmetry-seeking creep into the process. The end result can be a hardening of the outer body, layering on more and more tension as we try to grip and force ourselves into pre-conceived geometry.
Instead, there is a way of balancing this sthira (strength) with sukha (ease). A way to allow our spinning, waving, spiraling selves to soften enough to find the true edge, dissolve areas of tension, and still move forward into what is our unique optimal alignment.
I speak from experience, because I used to be militant about doing every pose “right.” In my quest for the perfect body on and off the mat, I developed an eating disorder as well as a ton of yoga-related repetitive stress injuries. Along the way, I did reach my goal of handstand without the wall. What I did not attain, however, was any sort of happiness or joy. Therefore, in my opinion, I wasn’t practicing yoga at all, but dukha, or suffering. A focus on perfection will always circle back to the big D.
Later in life and yoga, I got so sick (literally) of forcing myself into a box, that I began to seek out studios and teachers who advocated mindful, individual adaptation over form. I noticed that most of these teachers were over 40, many of them much older. Their physical asanas were very different than mine, yet the message is so freeing: Take this practice, poses, lessons and all, and make it yours, without apology or regret.
Approaching 40 myself, I can tell you that a relaxation occurs after a certain amount of time struggling and failing to reach absolute symmetry. You see it in the attitudes of certain grandparents, and it shows up in the practices of longtime yogis. The amazing thing is, once I let go of my quest for the unattainable, many of the poses, like the hovering jump-forward that I could never before master, became available to me.
Yoga, ultimately is a path of personal transformation, not perfection. Reclaiming this aspect of your practice gets you into direct connection with your core, and asks that you express your truth to the world in the way that’s best for you. When we remember that our growth and spiritual awakening happens only to the extent we can get present, get close to our inner nature, and take actions from integrity–none of which have a thing to do with a false ideal of perfection–life becomes wildly, strangely, perfect after all.
Core Pose: CAT/COW VARIATIONS
Sometimes, I feel like anything not on the the mat is forbidden territory–or “hot lava,” as we called it in my childhood. Yet venturing outside the rectangle can be just what you need to find pockets of tension, and then move and breathe to release them.
Come onto your hands and knees. Take a few arches and curls of the spine, then begin to move creatively as you listen to the cues of your body. Move your head, your arms, and even legs to serve your goals of equalizing support and freedom.
Spend a few minutes in this pose, adventuring in your own way!