The Path Less Traveled

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We’ve just celebrated the new year, a time when plans are made, goals are set, and visions for the future are invited and then locked in. This is also the time of year when a sinking feeling can come on, caused by self-doubt. Maybe you doubt that you have the determination and perseverance to follow through on the goals you’ve made, to make your life fit the shape of your desires. But is there another way to persevere other than with willful determination? I believe there is—and that it is a lot more fun.

Think of your yoga practice as a study in perseverance. Not the gut-wrenching, willful approach that is sometimes demanded by a challenging class, but rather the kind of perseverance that can be sustained over time. A yogi shows up each day, gets on the mat, and starts doing poses. Every day is different—a different feeling or sensation appears, a different insight reveals itself. A seasoned yogi follows, explores, and tests whatever unfolds on that particular day. But what sustains the commitment to show up in the first place? For me, it’s a sense of wonder, not the force of will. I am a yoga practitioner and teacher who is paralyzed from the chest down. I began practicing yoga when I was 25—12 years after a car accident claimed the lives of my father and sister and rendered me a paraplegic.

Over the past 17 years, my yoga practice has been anything but ordinary. Imagine me trying to do something as simple as Dandasana (Staff Pose). How does someone like me learn the subtle interplay between pushing my femur bones down, extending through my spine, and lifting my chest? I cannot do all the required physical actions. I can never “finish” the pose, and no amount of willful determination can change that. So what keeps me going?

I am nourished by the sensation of wonder. Each day that I get on my mat, I open to the vastness of yoga rather than narrow myself to a goal for that particular day. I feel wonder as I realize that every pose is infinite and that ultimate mastery is not possible. I feel wonder as my practice teaches me to trust that time, dedication, and curiosity are what bring me progress, not the intensity of my will. Most of all, I feel wonder about the little things—how my breathing is such a sensual experience, how my lifted chest directs awareness through my extremities. Finally, I am filled with a sense of wonder as I realize that my yoga practice allows me to refine the quality of my existence.

This is what I wish for you. As you think about your goals, take a page from your yoga practice: Relish the ride, not just the accomplishments.

Matthew Sanford is an Iyengar-style yoga teacher and the author of Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. He is the founder of the nonprofit Mind Body Solutions

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