We learn yoga and the teachings of yoga by experience, just like Arjuna in the sacred yogic text, the Bhagavad Gita. In the Gita, Arjuna must face and overcome his fear of failure. Like Arjuna, failure terrifies me. As a stereotypical high achiever, it is not something I grew up accustomed to. My first real experience of failure was failing my driving test three times. It threw me into a complete panic. So, I developed an aversion to anything where there was a possibility I might fail. Sad, but true, sometimes it is easier not to try than to face the prospect of failure. (Read more in The Nature of Fear.)
Enter the primary series of Ashtanga yoga. Initially, the practice was bizarre to me. The idea that you practice the same asana every day, refining them, deepening them and not moving on until you have perfected them seemed alien. The discipline and rigidity were new to me and I sensed that this kind of experience could teach me a lot.
But there was something in particular that I struggled with; it was the idea that when you reached an asana you couldn’t do, you stopped the series and simply tried it again the next day. What if I can never do it? I worried. What if I never get past this point?
The “sticking point” for me was bhujapidasana, or shoulder-pressing pose. The openness in the hips, the flexing of the wrists and the strength in the arms that this asana requires were huge challenges for me. I really wasn’t convinced I’d ever get there. What if I try and try and I fail anyway?
For the longest time, that’s exactly what I did. I kept trying and trying, and failing and failing. To say I was frustrated by my lack of progress would be an understatement. I sought advice, I watched YouTube tutorials and I obsessively analyzed my body’s proportions and range of motion. The question was still there: What if I fail?
Then one day when I hit this asana and once again didn’t pull it off, I was again flooded with self-doubt. What if I never manage this? But in a moment of absolute clarity, the answer hit me. So what? So what if I keep trying and keep failing? Does it really matter? I’m still practicing yoga, I’m still getting stronger, I’m still experiencing the profound mental, physical and spiritual benefits of my practice. So what if I never manage this particular asana?
In this moment, I saw bhujapidasana for what it was. A lesson. My attachment to outcome and my fear of failure had been channeled into my relationship with one yoga asana. As a result, this pose had acquired a ridiculously inflated status in my mind. Yet it was actually simply an asana. Nothing more, nothing less. (Learn more in The Wisdom of Non-Attachment.)
My new realization answered another question that had been bothering me. What about all the time I could waste in trying it? Because, of course, the time was not wasted. Lord Krishna’s words of advice to Arjuna came back to me, ringing more true than ever:
“On this path effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure. Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear.”
I had already learned so much from this asana; therefore, my efforts had not been wasted at all. Failure was not failure, it was just a different outcome to the one I had been attached to. When I let go of my attachment to reaching a particular place, the fear disappeared.
Interestingly the week after this epiphany, after just a few more practices where I’d approach the asana with curiosity, it suddenly happened. I jumped forward, as I had so many times before, leapt my feet around my hands, hooked them in front, engaged my core and drew myself up. To my amazement, my feet lifted. Instinctively, my body knew to push my feet forward, pressing my thighs into my arms and lifting even higher. I was flying. Until I collapsed and clumsily fumbled my way through my next vinyasa, beaming with excitement.
I had the most profound sense that the bhujapidasana had taught me what I needed to learn. Once I had let go of my attachment to it, I learned what it needed me to know. Only then was I able to move further along my path. (Read more in The Freedom in Letting Go.)
These days, a strict Ashtanga
practice is no longer my daily sadhana
. I mix vinyasa flow
sessions with Yin yoga
and enjoy their freedom and creativity. But every now and again, I’ll come back to the primary series for its discipline, structure and consistency. As I lift into bhujapidasana, I feel the strongest gratitude for the lessons it has taught me.