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Learning Self-Awareness

Taking a mixed-level yoga class on vacation, Jessica Abelson realizes how much she's learned in her own practice.

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by Jessica Abelson

I’m in Kauai for a week with my family, my mom, dad, and sister. We swim, hike, play tennis, and eat great food. It’s wonderful and exactly what I anticipated. What I didn’t expect was to be able to practice yoga. Yes, yoga in Hawaii—not bad.

Returning from a walk one day, my mom tells me she saw an outdoor yoga class happening nearby. Very aware of my new-found love of yoga, she suggests we go the next day, and I eagerly agree. We wake up at 9 am, throw on some spandex, and walk a few minutes until we reach a grassy area filled with people on mats. There is a range of participants: young and old, men and women, big and small.

On the grass, the wind is softly blowing, and the wide expanse of blue ocean lay in front of me. The teacher is in her 60s, fit and strong, without an ounce of fat on her bones. I’m already impressed.

She begins with some side stretching, rolling of arms and wrists, and a few seated twists. This is simple, I think. I’m in the back of class, able to look at everyone and their postures. It’s immediately clear that the class has a range of skill levels. While side stretching, some people—like me—try to keep their shoulders down, their quads engaged, and their breathing steady and deep. Others take a more literal side stretch—pushing their bodies out to one side with force and determination. I know they are simply less aware of the subtleties of these poses. They don’t know yet that a side stretch works so much more than the side body, if you let it.

But it’s OK. We’re here to stretch, I think, not to win a yoga competition. But suddenly class revs up. Before I know it, we’re flowing between poses. I attempt to get my hips aligned, my shoulders down, my legs engaged, and my arms strong. Assured in my even alignment, I take a quick gaze at the class in front of me and am shocked. There are arms in every direction, hips jolted out to the side, shoulders crunched up to ears, and twists and turns that look entirely painful.

Simply looking at these people, including my mom, I know they are misaligned. They are most likely feeling a stretch, but not where it counts, and most importantly, not where it is healthy.

As a beginning yogi, I sought the strongest stretch and pushed my body into positions beyond my range. I thought that’s what it meant to do yoga. Now I know it is not. True yoga is compassion, and that means being nice to your body. It means staying in a restorative Bridge when you’re not ready for Wheel Pose. It means taking Child’s Pose when you need a breath. It means observing your body.

The Sanskrit term, svadhyaya (self-study) comes to mind. I realized during this class that I had reached a new level as a yoga practitioner. By noticing the misalignment in my classmates, I was really noticing the awareness I had gained in my own body. Originally I practiced yoga poses for surface-level results: stretching the hips or toning the abs. Now I know that every pose and every breath is fuel for my body as a whole.

While it was hard for me to watch other people make the same beginner’s mistakes that I did, it was also a great moment for me. It was in this yoga class in beautiful Hawaii that I realized I was becoming aware of my Self. It is from this perspective that I now love alignment-based yoga classes, which focus on the anatomy and the body as a sacred center to nourish and praise, not push and pull.

I’ve also realized that that with every piece of wisdom I gain, I will likely have two more questions in return. But I welcome this whole-heartedly. I would rather live every day in the light striving to be a better me, than to stay in the dark where there is no self-observance at all.

Let there always be light, let there always be wisdom, and please let there always be yoga.

Jessica Abelson is the Web Editorial Assistant at Yoga Journal. She loves practicing yoga on the beach.