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I was leading a Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga practice for a group of yoga teachers the other day, and one of them asked me afterwards why I prefer to cartwheel out of an overzealous handstand rather than drop over into a backbend. Poses that require lumbar movement are a real challenge for me, not because of a lack of flexibility or strength–my lumbar spine has hardly any curve. It’s a bone compression thing, one I won’t be able to change no matter how hard I try. And, believe me, I tried WAY too hard for years.
I’m more than slightly competitive by nature, so naturally when I began my yoga practice, I coveted all the stately, arching poses I couldn’t do. From the first Sun Salutation, I rushed past Cobra in favor of Up Dog. To me, Bridge wasn’t a pose, just an impatient pit-stop on my express lane into Wheel.
I held a death grip on my ideal pose: Forearm Stand Scorpion … and I wouldn’t let it go, until it became the straw that (literally) almost broke my back. One day, spine be damned, I forced myself past my healthy edge. The result was a herniated disc that pressed right into my sciatic nerve, and for 6 months, I was regressed to prenatal Cobra Pose.
One day, while grumbling through the tiniest seed of low Bridge Pose while the rest of the class was in full Wheel, I realized something amazing: This backbend actually felt good! It was well-supported and my heart was able to expand from the strong root underneath.
My newfound awareness of how backing off had actually helped me find the equilibrium I’d sought, opened my eyes to the fact that grasping for external success at the expense of internal balance wasn’t just my tendency in the yoga pose, but also in my life. I looked around me and saw jealousy showing up everywhere. My inability to be confident in my own skin was causing all my relationships–and me–to suffer.
If my partner spoke to someone I thought was better looking than me, I would feel immensely insecure. I had a hard time feeling truly happy for my friend who got a sudden financial windfall because I didn’t have as much. Whether on or off the mat, I wanted more, to be better than everyone, to have nothing left to want or attain before I would be satisfied.
Yogis call this parigraha, the yogic term for “grasping at externals,” or being unable to let go of the ego’s desires and access your own inherent satisfaction. It’s one of the biggest causes of dukha, or living in pain. As I progressed in my yoga studies, it became crystal clear that I was wasting a lot of energy looking outside of myself for my center.
Getting conscious meant I had to surrender my grasp on the fantasy and step into the reality. I began to let go of my idea of what I “should” be able to do, and started owning who I was and be where I needed to be. The happy result of this practice of owning my truth is that I relaxed at a deep core level, and chronic jealousy disappeared from my life. I can honor my friends and students for their accomplishments, because I’m just as fully at work rocking who I am.
When we practice aparigraha, or releasing the death grip on externals as our only source of happiness, we actually create another kind of hold–this time a powerful merging with our own core connection. We unite with our natural wellspring of self-created joy and can truly become a positive part of our community.
My body may not backbend beyond a cranky full wheel, but it is made for poses that require core strength like handstand and arm balances. Since we teach what we know, I’ve made this strength into my style. I’m so glad I finally saw that who I was would serve me better than who I wasn’t.
I encourage you to do the same, in any aspect of your life where you perceive something (or someone) outside of you as the thing that controls your confidence, empowerment, and peace. The power of yoga, or unity with one’s truth, is that coping and co-dependence dissolve in the light of your self-generated OK-ness. It’s an old cliché, but to do this, you have to decide to believe that you’re enough, just as you are–and then take actions that mirror that view. In time, this shift from parigraha to aparigraha will become your new truth.
Now, when I teach, I make sure to give multiple variations, and encourage the students to find and play their own unique edges. “No matter what your level or ability, your poses are all equally valuable as your personal vehicle of transformation,” I say. And I notice that if I don’t grasp at their practices, or enforce attainment of the more advanced poses, it tames the green-eyed monsters in the room to hear it.
Do I still covet the effortless rainbow spines of my fellow yogis? Sometimes. But now I know it doesn’t define me. I listen to my body in any given moment, let my ego take a backseat, and say with an inner smile, “This is my pose … and I’m sticking to it.”
Core Question: Where in your yoga practice have you been letting something external define your happiness? How about in your life? What will you do differently to practice aparigraha in these situations?
Core Pose: Heart-opening Sukhasana variation into Crossed Boat.
This is one of the poses I do to prepare for backbends. It gives all the chest-opening and upper back and core strength needed without diving too far, too fast into the lumbar curve.
Come into Sukhasana (Easy Pose). Inhale and stretch the chest and arms up as the shoulders and tailbone lengthen down.
Exhale, rock back onto the sitting bones, firm the lower abdominals, and bring fists to the outer hips for a core strength mudra I call Fists of Fire. If possible, lift your knees and/or crossed ankles off the floor.
Whatever variation you choose, make sure it’s one where you can maintain the natural curve of your lumber spine. It must draw in as you lift the legs to counteract the movement of the front body. Repeat 5 times.