When I started yoga, I did not expect it to teach me how to reach more. As far as I was concerned, reaching "more" -- which I measured in terms of achievement, accomplishments and promotions -- was something I had no problem with.
I am “naturally” very driven. This is a quality which has, for the most part, served me well all of my life. At school, the moment I sensed that a teacher did not believe in me, I set out to prove them wrong. “You think I’m going to get a C grade? Interesting.” And then I’d work ridiculously hard to make sure I’d get the A. I was always out to prove a point, to prove I could do it and to prove people wrong. Even when their intentions were good, I felt threatened by the slightest suggestion that I might not be capable. When a teacher did not set me the highest target grade of an A+, because he/she “didn’t want to put too much pressure on me,” I was silently outraged. Of course I made sure that I got the A+.
I took this same attitude into my career and, again, in a lot of ways it paid off. I never missed deadlines, I’d push myself each day to be better than I had been the day before, and I took feedback on my performance extremely seriously. The smallest hint that I could improve, and I’d resolve to make myself stronger than anyone thought possible in that area.
But this way of thinking had a downside. It was a way of thinking that drove me to be constantly working. I felt like little more than a walking to-do list. My life became a constant battle to be better, in every way: my career, my fitness and my personal life. And I became pretty unhappy in the process.
Then I discovered yoga and, for the first time ever, encountered the idea that I could accept myself exactly as I was. After years of punishing my body with vigorous exercise and picking up countless injuries, there was so much I couldn’t do in yoga classes. But I kept hearing the message from my teachers that this was okay. Not that it would be okay once I’d mastered the pose, or strengthened my shoulders or lengthened my hamstrings, but that it was already okay exactly as it was.
(This is also true when trying to meditate; so, Stop Judging and Just Delight in Your Meditation Practice as It Is.)
This was not a concept I felt at all comfortable with. My mind resisted, wanting to be striving and pushing and refusing to settle. But this resistance itself forced me to look within and to confront aspects of myself that I was hiding. Because, as much as I hated to admit it, a lot of my drive and ambition came from the deep-rooted belief that I was not good enough as I was. And so I kept going back to yoga and I kept confronting those demons. I learned how to consciously be present and breathe and accept whatever came up.
I still had things that I wanted to reach for, but I realized quickly that as soon as I achieved one thing in yoga, there would always be the next thing to strive for. For some reason, this lesson struck me more clearly on the mat than it ever had in my life; although, of course, it applied to everything. The sweetness of each achievement would always be diminished by the realization of a new goal, a new target to reach for. For instance, the moment I learned how to lift up into crow pose, I wanted to be able to do it with my arms straight. Then once I’d managed that, I wanted to be able to lift one leg. What I had to learn instead was to embrace the journey, finding pleasure there. Instead of becoming fixated on the goal, I had to find the joy in the reaching itself.
And yoga taught me a different way of reaching. It taught me that while it’s great to reach for things, I have to accept myself first. In doing this, I’ve found that if the reaching itself doesn’t come from a place of contentment or happiness, it doesn’t fulfill you. And this has made me reassess a lot of my life choices. I’ve let go of a lot of the things I was reaching for because, although I was climbing a ladder, I was on the wrong ladder. I was reaching for things that did not fulfill my soul. Now I make sure I am reaching from a place of happiness and self-acceptance, and a desire to follow what is best for me, not a need to punish myself for not being good enough.
(If you're also struggling with self-punishment, try Ahimsa: A Self-Practice.)
I’ve reached more in the last year than I’d ever thought possible -- I’ve qualified as a yoga teacher, begun my Advanced Yoga Teacher Training, and have taught yoga at beautiful locations all over the world. And I’m so grateful for yoga for helping me to understand how to do what I thought I was already so good at -- reaching for more. It seems like a paradox, but yoga has taught me to reach more by accepting and embracing what I already am.
(Continue reading in The Genuine Seeker.)