Learning to be Gentle

Erica Rodefer Winters reminds her yoga students to be gentle with themselves—a lesson she had to learn as well.

“Gentle! Gentle!”

It’s not socially acceptable (or very nice!) to pull on puppy dog tails and kitty cat ears. So now that my little one has learned to crawl, grab, pull, pinch, and swat, I find myself reminding her to be “gentle” approximately a 1,000 a times a day. It’s a lesson that carried over into my yoga class I taught last week. During seated forward bends, I noticed grimaces on my students’ faces as they tried to force themselves into deeper poses, so naturally I asked: “Are you being gentle with yourself?”

We’re taught from a young age to be gentle with others—first physically, then with our words. But, for whatever reason, many of us don’t get the message that it’s important to be gentle with ourselves. This was (and continues to be) one of the most valuable lessons learned on my yoga mat: No amount of force, hard work, or sheer will is going to make your hamstrings open any sooner. Unfortunately, instead of taking a deep breath and being present with the stretch that is available to us in the moment, most of us initially respond with judgments, critical thoughts, and feelings of inadequacy. When we see someone else struggle with a pose, we’d never think these things about them—but we often hold ourselves to a different, and unrealistic, standard.

I’ll never forget the first time a teacher called me out for this nonsense. Like so many new students do, I yanked myself forward as far as I possibly could, hell-bent on getting my nose to touch my outstretched leg when she came over and put a belt down beside of me. I ignored it, sure that I was too “advanced” for a prop. She picked the belt back up and put it in front of my face. “Here. Put this around your foot.” she persisted. I was embarrassed when she crouched down beside of me to instruct me to flex my feet and press my thighs firmly into the floor, and only bend forward as far as I needed to in order to feel a gentle stretch. It took a couple more classes with this teacher, but eventually I realized that her approach, while it didn’t look as impressive, gave me both a deeper stretch and a deeper understanding. Being too tough on myself was getting in the way of my own progress. This is true for yoga poses, and it’s true for many situations in life, too.

Pushing ourselves too much can cause us to burn out prematurely, making us less productive. Expecting ourselves to know everything prevents us from asking questions that might help us learn and become better workers. Attempting to do everything, instead of focusing on one task at a time, has caused me to be less effective at everything more times than I care to admit. Each day I come to the mat to practice being gentler, kinder, and more understanding in everything I do—and I remember that it all starts with me. If my yoga students learn nothing else from me, I hope they learn to practice being gentle with themselves on and off the mat.