Yoga is my continuous opportunity to observe my relationship with intensity. Through media’s various channels one might be led to believe that advancement in yoga is solely measured by the ability to perform contorted-like positions. Not diminishing the value of physical prowess, another significant aspect of maturing in practice is development of skills that can make life easier off the mat. Even though I have always been fit, I was never into dance or gymnastics. When my mother brought me to audition as a child in my former home country of Belarus, the teacher bluntly told her I had no talent. During Soviet times, if you were not gifted the coaches would not waste their time training you. It was therefore something very different that drew me to yoga.
Life’s adversities and a feeling of disconnectedness are the reasons why I stepped on my mat. During my childhood in the former Soviet Union, four of us were crammed in a two room apartment, food was scarce, and we encountered persecution. Upon arrival in the United States as political refugees, there were other struggles. To survive, my parents did menial work. We lived in the projects and furnished our apartment with furniture from the trash. Wearing only hand me downs and not speaking a word of English, I didn’t feel that I belonged anywhere.
Feeling inadequate, I put pressure on myself to achieve and succeed by getting top grades and seeking to enter a lucrative career path. I thought if I studied harder and worked more, I would be happy. Instead, anxiety and fear became my familiar acquaintances. In my 20s, I received a call from the doctor and my whole world turned upside down. Having survived the medical issues, I decided not to waste another chance I had been given for this life. I made a decision to live differently and make every day count. Through numerous conversations with my students, I have witnessed our commonality. Many step on the mat to cope with health problems, loss of a loved one, career stresses, divorces, and other challenges.
It would be inaccurate to state that yoga removes all difficulties in life. However, with consistent practice negative emotions and hardships may loosen their grip. To be even more precise, I am alluding to disciplined practice of consciously tuning into presence and awareness rather than the achievement of an exotic end pose or goal. The parallels between yoga and life became clear; making something look good on the outside doesn’t necessarily create inner abundance or wholeness. Practicing with attachment to success can have the opposite effect of reinforcing and even creating more suffering.
In the heated power flow style, the asanas practiced are often similar day to day. By attuning to the breath, drishti, and physical sensations, the yoga becomes the study of who we are each time we arrive on the mat through our responses to the poses. What I found especially surprising is how a rigorous physical practice can aid in emotional fitness. I will never forget the early days of my practice, when the teacher held us in poses for what felt like eternity; my body was shaking, my clothes were soaked in sweat, and my mind would spin. The tendencies to fidget, to give up, or grit the teeth do not make one a bad practitioner. On the contrary, they are an opportunity for insightful self examination.
When faced with a challenge off the mat, often the unconscious habit is to recoil or react impulsively. With continuous conscious practice we can question what comes to us and not immediately give in to negativity and fear. I remind my students that we don’t have control of our thoughts, but we have control over our behavior around the thoughts. My battle scars brought me to where I am today. When faced with intensity on the mat, we can consciously pause and become open to new constructive possibilities.
Maturing on the mat is about meeting each moment with curiosity, so we can began to understand ourselves, feel stronger, and experience more inner abundance. The irony is that even though mastery of complicated poses has never been my goal, after many years my physical practice has palpably deepened. But the biggest gifts is that yoga brought me back to me, to the real me, to my body, to my soul. It helped me uncover my inner strength and to see that what exists inside of me is already whole and complete.