by Pam Burton-Macauley
I have a confession.
Despite practicing yoga diligently for more than 30 years (and teaching yoga for 10 of those), I still haven’t mastered headstand or handstand, at least not without needing the support of a wall.
For many years, I felt shame around this – as if the Yoga authorities would suddenly show up and revoke my Yoga card at any moment, as evidence of my ongoing fraud. I thought I simply wasn’t trying hard enough – or perhaps I just wasn’t ‘worthy’ of advanced postures that other yogis could so effortlessly nail. (And don’t even get me started on Scorpion pose – a forearm headstand combined with an incredibly deep backbend).
At times, it felt hopeless.
But if turning yourself into a pretzel was a litmus test for being a great Yogi, Cirque de Soleil performers would all be the world’s greatest Gurus.
The truth is, the Yoga is found not in the postures, but in the AWARENESS we practice as we move through them.
Because as wonderful as the stretching and strengthening may feel, without attention to our breath and our inner experience, and without awareness of our vast, boundless nature (what the ancient yogis called the ‘atman,’ or true self), we are simply performing calisthenics or contortionism.
Although asana have come to represent Yoga in the West, the truth is that they are simply one of the 8 Limbs of Yoga that the great sage Patanjali instructed us to practice. The other 7 limbs include Meditation, Breathwork, living ethically with yourself and others, etc.
‘Asana’ literally means ‘a seat.’ And for Patanjali, that meant a seat of meditation. A seat that should be “steady and comfortable.”
The few specific postures the yoga sutras laid out were meant to simply prepare the body to sit in meditation for long periods of time.
Many modern asana-based classes reverse that priority by packing in lots of postures while leaving little time for meditation.
It’s no wonder that many students think the only way to ‘progress’ in Yoga is to perform increasingly more difficult poses. But, as the Bhagavad Gita tells us, “Yoga is the journey of the self, to the self, through the self.”
It’s one of the reasons I’m so grateful to be part of the Sellwood Yoga community. At Sellwood, we are blessed with a variety of classes that invite us to go beyond merely asana, into a deeper awareness of the self.
‘Slower’ practices like traditional Hatha, Yin, Restorative Yoga, Meditation, Guided Breathwork and Yoga Nidra can actually be more advanced when they allow us to practice deep listening, and to compassionately honor the ever-changing capacities of our bodies as we experience stress, aging, injury, illness, and other challenges.
As for me, it was during an extended savasana in a slower Restorative class that I finally understood why headstand and handstand felt so out of reach.
As the teacher guided me through a self-compassion practice toward my younger self, a buried memory resurfaced. I was only three or four years old, riding beside my grandmother in her truck, when the side door opened, and I fell out head first. My grandmother had grabbed my foot and pulled me back in. I suddenly remembered that rush of fear and sense of groundlessness – no wonder it never felt safe to go upside down without something to catch me!
This realization, and the flood of self compassion that followed, allowed me to release my grasping toward (and self judgement around) difficult poses I thought I should master. In that moment, I was content to just BE, without the need to DO.
It also reminded me that Yoga’s greatest gift is not stronger muscles, or more flexible hips – it is the realization that our true essence transcends our physical form or perceived limitations.
In the end the pose is never the point.
But the pose is often a doorway into a deeper thresholds of awareness.
Which doorways will you step through? Try a new class, and let the journey begin.